The first time I explained to my Scottish friend Stuart what was in a Reuben Sandwich, he looked at me with pity and basically asked how could anyone enjoy a sandwich or a meal with “corned beef”?. It was only after we further discussed what we both defined as “corned beef” did we realize that we were talking about two different products.
The use of the word “corned” refers to the coarse salt that was used in the preserving of the meat.
Corned Beef, also known as Bully Beef from the French word “bouilli” (boiled) is finely minced / ground corned beef with gelatin added and packed in cans. The British version of corned beef was a main staple of the British military for the first half of the 20th Century. South America was and still is the leading processor of canned corned beef.
My personal experience with British Corned Beef was during my experience as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in The Gambia, West Africa. A part of the foreign aid to the country was in the form of canned corned beef that was supplied to the local elementary schools to supplement the nutritional requirements of the students. The cooks would slice and fry the canned corned beef, make a gravy from the drippings and then serve both over rice to the children and the teachers.
The best comparison for Americans of what is British Corned Beef would be to think of beef Spam. However, if you have ever eaten Corned Beef Hash from a can or at the diner, then you have had the equivalent of British Style Corned Beef that is crumbled and mixed with diced potatoes, chopped onions and seasoning.
Corned Beef (Salt Beef to our British cousins) in the United States is more reminiscent of the beef preserved in brine (salt water) and was an important facet of trade with the American and Caribbean colonies, in addition to being a food staple of the English Navy. Whereas any cut of beef was preserved in brine and store in wooden casks, today’s corned beef is typically made from the brisket or round cuts of beef and is cured with seasoned (pickling spices) brine. Pickling / Curing tough cuts of meat and then slow cooking them allows the meat to become more tender and flavorful.
In the United States corned beef is an integral component of Irish-American (corned beef and cabbage) and Jewish Deli cuisine. Although the first peoples to brine beef has been lost to history, it is widely believed that Irish immigrants adopted corned beef from their immigrant Jewish neighbors. At the time in Ireland, beef was not a primary food source of the average Irishman, with most of the production of corned (salt) beef being exported by the British. However, in the United States, beef was more plentiful and considerably cheaper then in Ireland and was soon adopted by Irish-Americans.
It was good that Stuart and I had this conversation. I know for a fact that once the definition of “corned beef” was resolved, Stuart has shared more then a few Reuben Sandwiches with me in Houston, TX. If you are curious of other foods shared between American and the British and the words that are used, then check out Stuart’s post: English and American English Food Terms.