For many Puerto Ricans, Christmastime is pasteles season. Come November, many of us are already thinking about how we’re going to score our pasteles, a complicated, labor-intensive holiday dish.
Pasteles come in several varieties, including pastel de arroz, pastel de yuca, and pastel de plátano. But, typically, the Christmas pastel consists of some combination of mashed viandas (root vegetables and plantains), a mixture of yautía (malanga) and guineo verde (green banana), olives, garbanzo beans, manteca de achiote (annatto-infused lard), and minced pork, all wrapped in banana leaves and parchment paper. The whole package is boiled in salty water for an hour. The hearty earthiness of the banana leaf and the masa is punctuated by the olives and fresh pork, which have been stewed in sofrito, a paste-like sauce created from cilantro, recao (culantro), green pepper, aji dulce pepper, cubanelle pepper, tomato, onion, oregano, capers, and garlic.
Although the first recipes for pasteles didn’t appear in cookbooks until the 1930s, food historian Cruz Miguel Ortíz Cuadra notes that pasteles were mentioned as early as 1843 in the book El aguinaldo puertorriqueño, which explored Puerto Rican Christmas traditions. The authors point to pasteles as an example of how Puerto Rican Christmas food was different than that of the Spanish. The origins of pasteles, however, can be traced back several centuries to Spanish colonial times, before they became an essential Puerto Rican Christmas dish. In Eating Puerto Rico: A History of Food, Culture, and Identity, Ortíz Cuadra explains that the technique of wrapping the pastel in banana leaves is owed largely to Puerto Ricans’ African ancestors who were enslaved by the Spanish and forced to work the sugar plantations. In the early 19th century, Spanish colonizers provided enslaved African workers a limited diet of viandas, which largely included plantains, a fruit that colonizers and white Puerto Rican elites alike looked down on as “rural y bárbaro.”
Puerto Ricans owe much of our cuisine to the ingenuity of Afro-Puerto Rican and mestizo cooks who experimented with the plantain and other root vegetables to make them not only edible, but also delicious. And the pastel in particular was influenced by Indigenous, West African, and Spanish food traditions. “If one focuses, however, on what truly makes pastel unique — the mashing of the dough to give it a certain texture and its being wrapped in leaves and cooked by boiling, three features that were constant — then the African element seems especially prominent,” Ortíz Cuadra writes.
This combination of cultural influences may have made pasteles specifically Puerto Rican, but, according to Ortíz Cuadra, pasteles evolved into a holiday staple because preparing them was such a long and complicated process that most people wouldn’t have had time to make them in their daily lives. Before the 20th century, home cooks often went to their yards or al monte (the mountain) in search of perfect banana leaves. Once they found suitable leaves, they would need to be softened over the fire or boiled until they turned dark green. There was also a special process for procuring the pork called la matanza. A tradition inherited from Spain, this celebratory event gathered family, close friends, and neighbors together to slaughter a pig.
Ortíz Cuadra describes how each person was given a task, and notes that the leanest cuts of meat were preserved in lard. Preparing the viandas was its own form of hard work: Aside from the demanding task of peeling the tough skins, the viandas needed to be grated, an activity that is very time consuming. Finally, making the masa takes the talent of an intuitive cook, since it requires managing the consistency and texture. “Calabaza will make the masa sweeter, but too much will make the pastel fall apart when you cook it,” Ortíz Cuadra says.
Even today, making pasteles is often a family event, as the dish requires many hands and days to assemble. Everybody gets put to work, even your laziest cousin. “Usually, families gather and create an assembly line to build them. It’s a great way to bring the family together to create something exceptional,” explains Derick Lopez, who makes pasteles both at home and at his restaurant Freakin Rican in Astoria, Queens. “Pasteles are a taste of home.”
Pasteles became a special Christmas dish not only because they were hard to make, but also because they resemble a wrapped present. On El Día de Los Santos Reyes, which is celebrated on January 6, Puerto Ricans honor the three kings who brought presents to Jesus Christ. “The pastel symbolizes a gift,” Ortíz Cuadra explains. “The quality of the gift corresponds directly with the difficulty of making the pastel.”
Over time, many versions of the Christmas pastel evolved according to the tastes and resources of the cooks making them. Wealthier cooks used raisins, for example. Others incorporated mashed calabaza into the guineo verde and yautía. A more recent masa variation includes yucca and apio (celery root). Regardless of the variations in pasteles, the quality of the ingredients is essential. “What makes a good pastel is everything fresh. Don’t skimp out on anything,” explains Lopez. After cooking the pork on the stovetop with sofrito, he mixes the leftover gravy into the freshly grated banana, yautía, and calabaza. He describes a series of next steps. “The achiote oil must be boiled perfectly to extract a vibrant red color. The pasteles absolutely need to be wrapped in banana leaves brushed with achiote oil; it helps the pastel slip right off the leaf.”
If you don’t cook them yourself, the search for your pasteles can become epic. Some Puerto Ricans returning home to PR for the holidays will try to sneak pasteles back to the States on the plane. However, with tightening security measures, many Puerto Ricans in the diaspora who are unable to make pasteles themselves will try to buy them from home cooks instead.
This is precisely what inspired George and Emy Rodriguez’s business Pasteles Rico. A former carpenter, George Rodriguez gained a reputation at work for the pasteles his mother would make. They were so good that coworkers would ask for them during Christmastime. “‘Your pasteles were rico.’ That’s all everybody kept saying,” George Rodriguez says.
After a friend urged him to start selling pasteles, he and his wife perfected their recipe with the help of their cousin Mery Luz Padilla Perez, who taught them how to take the flavor of their masa to the next level with a self-described secret ingredient. The first year they started selling their pasteles they averaged 900 orders. “This year we’re going to blow it out of the water,” George Rodriguez says. The couple also started selling pasteles de arroz and have noticed that many working young women and mothers like to buy them because, as Emy Rodriguez puts it, it’s a quick, easy, and healthy dinner that they can prepare for their family instead of eating fast food.
For George Rodriguez, the business is also a way to honor his mother Perfecta Padilla Rodriguez, who passed away in July of 2019 and who grew up preparing pasteles the way it was done traditionally. “My mother is from the Padilla family, located in Naranjito, Puerto Rico. She is the sister of seven and one brother,” he says. “I would go to Puerto Rico a lot during my younger years with my mother so I had seen them all cooking in the kitchen during my visits. They would do pasteles and slaughter and roast a pig. They were farmers.” Back in New York, his mother would prepare the same dishes in the Bronx while he watched and learned.
The couple hopes to preserve and pass on the ritual to their children, and the business is one way that they keep this food tradition alive. When I ask why they think pasteles became a quintessential Puerto Rican holiday dish, George Rodriguez answers, “At Christmastime, you’re opening up a package. And that to me is what a pastel stands for. It’s a gift … You’re unwrapping that gift as if it were a present on Christmas. And if it’s made right, you’re going to be so, so happy.”
Claire Jimenez is a PhD student in English and Ethnic Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the author of the short story collection Staten Island Stories (Johns Hopkins University Press).
Copy edited by Dawn Mobley