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Pressing the flesh

The piquant story of pastırma

Once the staple food of nomads and warriors, pastırma has turned into a gourmet delicacy. Text and photographs by Berrin Torolsan

Everyone knows of Marco Polo, the Venetian who travelled to the East at an early age in the 13th century, spending 17 long years at the court of Genghis Khan’s grandson Kubilai. Less well known is Johannes Schiltberger, the German Marco Polo, a nobleman’s son from Bayern, who as a teenager found himself fighting in the last Crusade against the Ottomans. In 1396, when his master fell at the Battle of Nicopolis (Niğbolu) on the banks of the Danube, young Johannes was taken prisoner. He served as a page at the Ottoman court until 1402, when his new master, Sultan Beyazıd, “the Thunderbolt”, was defeated at the Battle of Ankara by the legendary emir Timur (Tamerlane). He then entered the Turco-Mongol court, and was carried off to Samarkand. He would spend 30 years in captivity in Asia, passing from ruler to ruler and country to country, east to north. Eventually, he made it safely home.

The two men shared resilience, ingenuity, adaptability and an acute ability to observe. The memoirs of their barely credible odysseys have a journalistic quality that reveals a world previously unknown to the West and to this day casts a unique light on the golden age of medieval Central Asia. Schiltberger’s recollections were published in 1473 after his death as Als Sklave im Osmanishen Reich und bei den Tartaren 1394–1427 (As a Slave in the Ottoman Empire and among the Tartars). He records battles, lands and peoples, customs and everyday life. One curious habit of the Tartars, as he knew the Turco-Mongols, was the preserving of salted meat by “pressing it under the saddle of their horses”. Marco Polo had mentioned this a century earlier: if the Mongols “had fresh meat but no time to cook it they put the raw flesh under their saddles”. Not only did it become “soft and edible” but, crucially, it allowed an entire army “to camp without a single puff of smoke since they needed no fires to cook”.

The salting and drying of meat goes back to time immemorial. Doubtless, in Marco’s and Johannes’s native lands, there had been cured hams – prosciutti, jambons or Schinken – but both travellers were struck by the unfamiliar, rudimentary method of pressing meat under a saddle. Mahmud of Kashgar’s 11th-century lexicon of Turkic languages already gives the Turkish for pressing as basturmak, hence the name of today’s much-loved speciality, pastırma. Even if saddles are no longer employed, the cured meat is still pressed under a heavy weight to drain excess liquid.

Introduced from the Asian steppes by Mongol armies and migrating mounted Turkic tribes, pastırma became part of the diet in all the lands settled by Turkish-speaking peoples, and even beyond, thanks to the spread of the Ottoman Empire. In time what had started as a simple staple evolved into a delicacy. Its rustic name filtered down through the ages, barely changing and borrowed by countless languages as basturma, pastarma, pastorma, pastourmás and even the New World’s pastrami (introduced to America, it is said, by Sephardi Jews from Romania).

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