Culture and Cuisine: Puerto Rican Pasteles as a Symbolic Dish

Most people, no matter their ethnic background, eat the food that is aligned with their cultural history somehow, what we eat, when we eat, and how we eat it is reflective of our cultural background and it says something about its importance to not only ourselves but the rest of the world. Cultural foods can be eaten at any time, but for most people in the United States, or at least those with one or more degrees of separation from their culture, these foods are eaten on holidays.

The foods we eat can tell us not only something about the culture it belongs to in general, but the way the food, how long it takes, and its ingredients can also be tools for viewing the culture as a whole, as well as the economic, historical, environmental contexts in which it exists. This essay will examine the Paste/e, a Puerto-Rican food similar to the Mexican Tamale, in that it is a food wrapped in banana leaf or wax paper that can be filled with meats, vegetables, and rice.

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First, before discussing the historical, economic, and environmental contexts surrounding the Pastele, it is important to understand how it is made, Oswald Rivera, in his book Puerto Rican Cuisine in America: Nuyorican and Bodega Recipes describe the Pastele as “a singular creation made from common ingredients: root plants stuffed with meat”. Rivera nails the essence of this dish; it is a root vegetable, usually some form of plantain or cassava (often nicknamed yuca, which is different from yucca) stuffed by any type of meat, such as pork, beef, chicken, or turkey.

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Those two ingredients surmise the basic form of this dish, yet most add other tidbits into the mix, like spanish olives and potatoes and other small vegetables. Most of the mass of the dish is the root vegetable ‘paste’, which is what encases the meat and vegetables in the Pasteler After all of the ingredients are properly processed (most of the ingredients nowadays are put into a food processor after being cooked and blended until it is of a paste consistency), they are laid on a banana leaf, and the filling is placed in the center.

Similar to how a sushi roll is handled, the person making the Postele folds the banana leaf from under the paste and turns it into a half, enclosing the meat. From there, the banana leaf is folded, and the entire thing is wrapped in wax paper and tied with kitchen string. From there, they can be frozen or immediately boiled or baked for about 30 minutes. The composition of a Pastele can lend some information to who ate it, and when it was eaten The Postele tends to take a very long time to make, and yields high quantities, so it would make sense that families ate it together. Additionally, the Pastele, while rich in flavor, is somewhat sparing with the more expensive ingredients, like the meat filling. This would probably save families who ate it money, as they didn’t have to spend absurd amounts of money to feed their family, and they could make enough to save for later. Additionally, the basic composition of the Pastele can simply identify with a trend in Puerto Rican cooking: the heavy use of root vegetables now that the basics of Pasteles have been established, the historical context in which they exist can be examined.

Marixa Rodriguez’s article in Centro Voices talks more in-depth about the historical roots of the Pastel: There are many variations for pasteles]... [we] have pasteles made out of pork, chicken and bacalao Some add raisins, others garbanzo beans. How this varies by region is beyond the scope of my expertise... Given these variations, there is no "trite" recipe for a pastel. Recipes.,. continue to evolve to this day, depending on changes in taste, resources and even health concerns, For instance, while in the beginning pasteles were wrapped in hoja [banana leaf], when the hoja was scarce, parchment paper or even aluminum foil may come to be used.,. My sense is that there was a movement of ingredients from the island to the States, just as we have today. I would think that in the beginning people had to improvise (for example, not using hoja,) or depend on those coming from the island for the ingredients.

As our population grew, the market responded. At the same time, some of these ingredients—for example, the hoja—are available through Asian markets, denoting the global roots of our cuisine and highlighting the interplay of different diasporas through similarities in cuisines. The article talks about the significance of variation in the recipe, and what that means for its historic roots, while the Pastele can undoubtedly be called a Puerto Rican dish, it can also be called a Trinidadian, Colombian, or Dominican dish. it is not locked to one culture, and its introduction to the mainland United States is a joint effort on the part of many cultures Rodriguez’s article continues in the interview: MR: [On pasteles] Why are they so powerful uniting, celebrating and inspiring families? MF: It is a dish that takes hours to make, from the peeling of the ingredients for the masa to the hour they take to cook“. When people talk about memories in the kitchen, in casa de abuela, they often may recall when pasteles were made the family assembly line.

Despite that many of us are not making pasteles with the family today; eating them is still a special occasion.“ the ceremony of opening the string and unwrapping them (like a gift), smelling the masa and the meat, as the steam escapes the pasteL. The pastel is a dish deeply tied with how we define Puerto Rican food (even though Dominicans have their own version) The significance of the Pastele is demonstrated significantly by its intense, time consuming process that requires (or could use) more than one hand, usually bringing families together to spend upwards of an entire day making pasteles, Not only that, there is a certain festivity to the pastele, given its gift like unwrapping process (this might explain why it's often eaten on Christmas!) Everything from the creation to the consumption of the Pastel reminds people of their homes, fond memories of their relatives, or simply good food they used to eat when they were younger, John Ore describes how Pasteles remind him of his childhood years in Puerto Rico: “There, as kids, my brother and I chased lizards in the backyard, enjoyed coconut right off the tree, listened to coqui frogs at night and roosters in the wee hours of the morning through open louvered windows.

Everything on TV was in Spanish (which we didn‘t speak), so we explored a lot. We were also exposed to some dishes that, while we were too young to appreciate them, I still recall fondly and cherish today” (Ore).  As a mixed Puerto Rican who grew up in a gentrified neighborhood, I didn’t (and still don’t) know or connect with much of my Puerto Rican heritage Much of what I know comes from my father, who is also a mixed Puerto Rican, and also did not grow up in Puerto Rico. While I can’t say that eating pasteles reminds me of being in Puerto Rico, or eating as them a kid (I began to like them somewhat recently), I understand why they are so important to many people. Even having limited experience such as myself, I am almost intoxicated by the festive nature of the dish (which is even depersonalized due to the fact that we buy them from someone else who makes them). Yet, it remains clear that Pastels is an important part of Puerto Rican culture, and makes me feel a little closer to it.

Updated: May 03, 2023
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Culture and Cuisine: Puerto Rican Pasteles as a Symbolic Dish. (2023, Feb 21). Retrieved from

Culture and Cuisine: Puerto Rican Pasteles as a Symbolic Dish essay
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