A Family and Food Tradition: Making Pasteles

Most families have at least one food tradition every year. What’s a food tradition? It’s one of those days that you spend all day (with family) cooking a special something. Now this may sound like a holiday to you, but a “food tradition” can be independent from other holiday cooking and festivities. It is an ordinary day made extraordinary by its culinary play.

For some, this day may be a day filled with baking holiday cookies or macaroni making. For me, my family’s most involved food tradition is making Pasteles. Pasteles are a traditional Puerto Rican dish that resembles a tamale. As a child, all the components would be waiting one winter day at my grandparent’s Bronx apartment ready to be assembled. This year, I took it upon myself to bring back the tradition that had faded and make the pasteles ingredients to assemble them with my family on Thanksgiving. The two main components of the pasteles are the masa or dough, and the pork stew filling. To make a long story… less long… my sous chefs and I cut up a pork butt into stew-size chunks and made a delicious stew made of pork, chickpeas and sofrito (a blend of sautéed garlic, onions, green peppers, green olives, tomato sauce and bay leaves). We then roasted the bones and boiled them to make a pork stock. While allowing the stew to, well… stew, we made the masa- a blend of grated green bananas, green plantains, yautia (taro root), salt, annatto oil, milk, pork stock and some of the stew juice. We easily had over 10 lb. of starchy product to grate. After half the day in the kitchen and a nap, we were ready to make some pasteles the next day… on Thanksgiving! (Not my greatest idea to do it on a holiday, but it was fun).


The finished product


We surprised my grandparents with the fact that we were going to make pasteles and quickly all jumped back into our old roles. Since I was the kid, I was always in the heart of the action; I was in charge of putting together the pasteles. Steps: parchment paper, annatto oil, masa, the pork stew and a roasted pepper. The canvas then gets rolled, folded and wrapped before it is passed to my grandfather who ties them up perfectly. My mom and grandmother were always nearby to tell me I was making them too big, too small, too much masa, too little meat, and take over when I got tired or frustrated. This year, my grandfather shared the tying privileges with my boyfriend who was new to the whole process and thrilled to be included. Coming together to cook always opens the door to conversations with my grandparents about their childhood, family, heritage and other wonderful memories and stories. Although slightly different from my family’s recipe, Daisy Martinez has a great recipe that I used to help fill in the blanks (such as the directions) that my family recipe left out,

available here!

Pasteles are boiled for 1 hour to cook them!

This long, family-gathering culinary ritual was always a day I looked forward to as a kid. Now even after transitioning to the most labor-intensive side of the preparation, I can’t wait to do it again. Like family meals, these food traditions are great opportunities to spend family time and teach kids a love and respect for food and cooking like I learned as a kid. While it may not be the most nutritious dish, the lessons and appreciation learned are invaluable.

I know everyone has different traditions like this in their families and I’d love to hear yours! What delicious foods and recipes gather your family in the kitchen on what would otherwise be a typical day?

Ready to eat

Wishing you all happy and healthy holidays!

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