Puerto Rico may be known for its coffee, tostones, and pork, but the underrepresented pasteles are a staple dish on the island.
Every culture has one dish with a billion steps, and it takes forever to cook, so a bulk batch is required whenever it's made. For Puerto Ricans, that dish is pasteles.
I didn't know about pasteles for a long time, then one thanksgiving years ago, my dad was ridiculously excited about making them. He spoke with his mom, and his stepmom consulted the internet to concoct a recipe to attempt with my siblings and me. Every year since, making pasteles has become an important holiday tradition for our family.
Usually, I cook the dishes I write about with my boyfriend, like the arepas or Cubanos we made. However, the sheer effort and volume needed to make pasteles worthwhile are not something we could realistically attempt on our own. Regardless we're going to upkeep the tradition and make a colossal batch just in time for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
This time instead of cooking the dish, I thought I would reminisce about all the other times I've made it.
If there is anything anyone remembers about making pasteles is the shoulder pain, hand cramps, and random stains that come from shredding so many green bananas. Green banana goo gets underneath your fingernails and stains everything it touches. My family usually covers the table in cardboard or garbage bags to prevent as much mess as possible. There are so many green bananas to shred that we invite family over and take turns, even training the family's youngest members to participate.
Some people use a food processor or a blender to shred all the veggies, but the texture differs too much and is not necessarily appetizing. Still, I wouldn't know because everyone I know prefers shredding over machinery.
The dough or masa is not comprised of only green bananas; there is yautia, pumpkin, plantains, and annatto oil. All the vegetables are shredded into mush and placed into the most enormous containers we can find. Then comes my favorite part of making pasteles – seasoning and mixing the ingredients. I put on food-safe gloves and sink my hands into the vat of vegetable mush, mixing with glee at the weird feeling. I mix while someone else adds annatto oil and salt for taste. Frankly, the sheer joy that encompasses my body from just mixing vegetables is akin to childlike bliss.
The one part of the pasteles that I never touch is cooking the pork. I don't deal with the prep, seasoning, or cooking of the pork, only the tasting and eating, and that's how I would like to keep it. My sister and dad deal with the pork, making magic in a pot because it always comes out exquisite.
Once the pork and masa are ready comes the assembly. Banana leaves, kitchen twine, annatto oil, parchment paper, and pork and masa are all set up in an assembly line with different stations. When my family does it, one or two people are in charge of prepping the twine, parchment paper, and banana leaves, someone else makes the pasteles, and everyone else is in charge of wrapping them up. My dad usually makes the pasteles and judges everyone else working on their station, claiming the wrap is too loose or too tight and the banana leaves are too big or too small.
Lastly, the pasteles we intend to eat are boiled in salt water. Anything else is distributed to the family and frozen for later consumption.
My family makes cooking pasteles an event every year. It's daunting, and we complain most of the time, but it's fun, and we enjoy it. At least I enjoy it, but my brother and sister might say otherwise. Making it a family affair is the best part. Last year I was able to watch my grandmother, lovingly called Mama, make pasteles. She revealed knowledge that only someone with a lifetime of pasteles making experience could know.
Having familial traditions is fun and so much better when that tradition includes and ends with delicious food that everyone I know doesn't like. That's alright, though, because it leaves more food for me.