© Canadian Tourism Commission
What is Montréal smoked meat? The exact history of it is shrouded in mystery and many stories exist on who introduced it to Montréal. Of the various accounts of lineage, all point to Jewish diaspora from Romania or Eastern Europe.
According to one account, the first person to make the dish was Benjamin Kravitz, who used his own special brisket-curing technique. After fleeing Lithuania in 1899 with his wife Fanny Schwartz, they started serving smoked meat sandwiches out of their fruit and candy store located on St. Laurent Boulevard. He later founded the historic Bens De Luxe Delicatessen & Restaurant in 1910 (closed in 2006).
© Eva Blue
Another account has it that smoked meat originated from the now legendary Schwartz’s. Established in 1928 by Reuben Schwartz, it’s touted to be the oldest deli in Canada.
However, Montréal Historian Eiran Harris refutes both these claims. He credits a man by the name of Aaron Sanft (from Iasi, Romania) as being the grandfather of Montréal smoked meat. In 1884, Sanft founded Montréal's first kosher butcher shop and was the first to advertise smoked meat:
“A. Sanft Kosher Meat — 560 Craig Street, Montreal’s largest butcher shop, clean and fresh meat daily. Manufacturer of salami, smoked meat, corned beef, smoked beef and sausages. Same quality as New York. Guaranteed not to spoil.”
© Alice Gao/Commission Canadienne du Tourisme
How it's made
Not to be confused with New York-style pastrami, Montréal smoked meat uses the entire brisket. This includes fatty parts of the muscle, whereas pastrami uses the navel cut which is naturally leaner.
Traditionally, the meat was dry-cured, rubbed with salt and spices, and then piled into barrels where it would marinate in its own juice for up to a month. Then, the meat was hung inside smoke houses and smoked for up to 10 hours.
Today, tradition has made way for more modern techniques. The marinating process is often cut down to just a few days thanks to nitrates and aromatic brines. But what’s the secret to great taste of Montréal smoked meat? It’s the mix of savoury spices like whole peppercorns, coriander, mustard seed and garlic.
© Alison Slattery
How to order
A traditional Montréal smoked meat sandwich is always piled high and served on rye bread. Because smoked meat is made with brisket, the meat can be lean or fatty, depending on the sections. That means that you can specify your preference when ordering. Here are the code words and what they mean:
- "Lean" – Drier meat sliced from the brisket flat. This option is sometimes less flavourful.
- "Medium" – The most popular cut from the middle of the brisket. You’ll get a juicy mix of lean and fattier pieces.
- "Old-Fashioned" – A combination of medium and fatty pieces that are often cut a bit thicker.
© Canadian Tourism Commission
Where to eat it
Today, you don’t have to visit a deli to try Montréal smoked meat, since the popular dish has made its way onto menus around the city. From corner diners, chain restaurants and even fine-dining establishments, everyone has their version of this classic Montréal sandwich.
Here is some of the city’s favourites:
Schwartz’s Hebrew Delicatessen – 3895 Saint Laurent Boulevard
The Main Steakhouse – 3864 Saint Laurent Boulevard
Lester’s Deli – 1057 Bernard Avenue
Snowdon Deli – 5265 Decarie Boulevard
Smoke Meat Pete – 283 1st Avenue, Ile Perrot
Jarry Smoked Meat - 6549 Jarry Street East
Briskets Montréal – 1199 De Bleury Street
Le Roi du Smoked Meat – 6705 Saint-Hubert Street
Dunn’s Famous Delicatessen – Multiple locations
Reuben’s – 1116 Sainte-Catherine Street West
© Eva Blue
The classic way to eat Montréal smoked meat is on rye bread with a smear of yellow mustard. Restaurants around the city have their own (tasty) variations on smoked meat sandwiches, but there’s no arguing with tradition: steamy slices of medium-fat juicy brisket piled high with a half-sour pickle and fries on the side, enjoyed with a tall glass of cherry cola. Whatever you do, don’t ask for mayo.