After Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, it took two weeks for Harry Franqui-Rivera to reach his 76-year-old mother, Amelia, by phone at her home on the island’s west coast.
When he did, Mr. Franqui-Rivera, a history professor at Bloomfield College in New Jersey, found that her main concern wasn’t the lack of electricity or running water. It was the loss of her Christmas pasteles.How to Make Pasteles
Jessica Emily Marx for The New York Times
Without power, Ms. Rivera de Franqui had to throw out the pounds of green bananas she had already grated to make the dough for the savory bundles sometimes described as the Puerto Rican version of tamales.
A centuries-old blend of Taino Indian, Spanish and African flavors, pasteles are a prime example of Puerto Rico’s cocina criolla — Creole cooking — made not with cornmeal masa but with a mash of green bananas and plantains bolstered by sturdy Caribbean root crops like yautia and yuca. Wrapped in a smoky-sweet banana leaf, they’re typically filled with seasoned meat, stained with sunset-hued annatto oil and boiled up by the dozen at any gathering held between Thanksgiving and Three Kings Day on Jan. 6.
“There’s no holiday if there’s no pasteles,” said Mr. Franqui-Rivera, 45, who, like many members of the Puerto Rican diaspora, used to tote them back to the mainland frozen in his suitcase — until he insisted that his mother show him her recipe. This year, with groceries and electricity still in short supply on the island, he will execute what he calls Operation Pasteles, bringing frozen masa to his mother from his kitchen in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
Anyone who has ever made pasteles (to pronounce it, many people skip over the last letter: pah-TEH-leh) will understand Ms. Rivera’s plight.
Pastel-making is fraught with time-consuming tasks, the hardest being the making of the banana-and-plantain masa. Equally taxing is the layering of ingredients — masa; either meat, seafood or vegetables; and Spanish-style extras like olives, raisins or chickpeas — onto sheets of banana leaf and parchment paper. Those are all folded into rectangular little packages and tied up, two at a time, into a pair of pasteles that everyone calls “la yunta.” (And before anyone can take a bite, each pastel must be boiled for an hour.)
“They are a pain in the balloons,” said Hernan Rodriguez, 52, who was born in Puerto Rico and has lived in New York City since 1987. His wife, the food writer Kathleen Squires, has written lovingly about his family’s holiday pastelada, or pastel-making party, in Puerto Rico. Mr. Rodriguez, who hosts a New York supper club called Chef’s Dinner Series, said many of his relatives attend with a drink in hand, “grating until they get bored.”
But this year, everyone must pitch in. The plan, Ms. Squires said, is to make as many pasteles as possible “from whatever we can find” at a cousin’s house near San Juan, then give them out to volunteer relief workers and hard-hit communities.
Even when you use a food processor to grate and purée the masa and freeze it in advance (wishful thinking for those without power in Puerto Rico), it’s still “a marathon,” said Angel Roman, 61, a deputy press secretary for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection. In his spare time, he promotes the food, music and art of the Puerto Rican diaspora.
Mr. Roman, a second-generation Nuyorican, recently shot video of his sister-in-law Lucy Ramirez as she made pasteles, so as to pass what he fears are rapidly disappearing skills on to the family’s younger members. “Now people say, ‘I want pasteles,’ and they find these entrepreneurs,” Mr. Roman said. “People hand out cards, or they say, ‘Hey, call Doña Maria.’”
In New York, you could also find your pastel maker on Yelp — there’s Cater2u in the Bronx, Pasteles Cristina in Queens — or at groceries like the 76-year-old Moore Street Market in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where generations of Puerto Ricans have shopped for ajicito chiles, the saw-toothed herb called culantro and these days, pre-grated masa.
A handful of its vendors, like La Union, sell pasteles year-round, but during the holidays even the market’s religious-supply shop makes them to order. In the basement, Jesus Rodriguez works double-time building handmade machines from washing-machine motors that allow semiprofessional pastel makers to grate a box of bananas at a time. And across the street at the 49-year-old Anibal Meat Market, pastel makers like Maria Garcia stop in to buy chicken and pork for the filling.
Ms. Garcia, 70, charges $25 a dozen and has been selling pasteles for 35 years. She makes most of her sales through her son, who puts up a handwritten ad at his barbershop in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn.
Most years, similar scenes would be playing out across Puerto Rico, said Melissa Fuster, 37, a professor of public health nutrition at Brooklyn College who is originally from San Juan, and often writes about Puerto Rican food culture.
Though many supermarkets on the island are still empty, she said, pasteles have long been improvised with what’s at hand, resulting in versions made with only yuca, without any filling, or with rice instead of masa.
“In difficult times, one thing that defines us is that we keep positive,” Ms. Fuster said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if people found a way to make pasteles.”
Suset Laboy Perez, 36, a Puerto Rican native who runs a Brooklyn public relations firm with her sister, Maria, worries less about pasteles this year than about the thousands of Puerto Ricans leaving the island, and the resulting losses to their culture.
Still, she said, she never made pasteles herself until years after she moved to the United States, holding her own pastel-making party as a way to connect with home.
“There will be more pasteladas,” Ms. Laboy Perez predicted. “We need them now more than ever.”
Recipe: Puerto Rican Pasteles
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Correction: December 3, 2017
An earlier version of this article misspelled the phrase many Puerto Ricans use to describe a pair of pasteles. It is la yunta, not la junta.