What are pasteles? The simple answer: they are a green banana/plantain-based cake-food from Puerto Rico containing various fillings.
Pasteles mark time. Growing up, the frenzy and activity surrounding pasteles told you Christmas was coming. They also marked a moment when my parents’ home in The Bronx became a small factory, producing up to 400 pasteles in a marathon day-long session. They were frozen and when they ran out, you knew spring was coming.
This was the world my mother, Milagros, made each year. Everyone joined the operation—whether you eat pasteles, or not. Commanding the action to the beat of Latin Christmas music, my mom moved heaven and earth. Green bananas and platanos got grated; pork shoulders were cubed and cooked in a large pot; fillings of all sorts were spread on the table, the center of our assembly line.
She then spread crimson-tinged achiote oil (which she made) on sheets of parchment paper followed by the masa (a batter using plantains and green banana) which formed a bed for fillings. She then wrapped each one, using the side of her hand to perfect the shape and then bundled the pastels, two by two, with twine.
Leading from her small kitchen, my mother embodied the cultures—native, African and European—that, like the pastels themselves, joined together to produce something rare and unique. This tradition and this food from “la isla” grew in importance on the mainland, connecting our family members and friends—a lasso of flavor warming us each winter.
There’s a deeper meaning, though. Pasteles mark a lifetime. Pasteles are the teenage girl who left her home to travel alone on an infamous boat that hugged the coast in wartime. They’re the memories bitter and sweet that she carried with her to New York. They’re her meeting the only man she would ever love and marry. They’re the girl becoming a woman and having the children she wanted by the man she wanted and living in the house she wanted. They’re good times and struggles; they are heartbreak and joy abundant.
So, what are pasteles? Pasteles are something difficult and rare and proclaimed delicious. Pasteles are a miracle on a plate.