How Pasteles Became a Puerto Rican and Dominican Christmas Dish

Zayda Rivera/Design by Aly Lim
Zayda Rivera/Design by Aly Lim

One holiday dish you can expect to find in most Boricua and Dominican households are pasteles. Traditionally made with grated root vegetables to create the plantain base called masa and filled with pork, pasteles are traditionally eaten on Noche Buena. Not only does the dish bring people together, but it ignites a competitive spirit to find out who makes them the best. As a child growing up in a big Puerto Rican family, pasteles were synonymous with the holidays. My maternal grandmother made hers with magic, and family, friends, and neighbors looked forward to getting their share.

As a little girl, I remember a newspaper clipping that was framed and hung in my grandparents' finished basement, aka the lounge where all the parties took place. The news story was about pasteles and featured a photo of none other than my cute little grandmother, whom we all affectionately called Mama. She created memories with pasteles by involving her children and grandchildren in the process.

In the style of a conveyor line, Mama would line up all the ingredients and assign people to a station. I loved getting the plantain leaf station where I gently placed a leaf centered on the parchment paper we were using to wrap the pasteles. I'd add one small spoon of achiote oil on top of the leaf before passing it on to the next station — the masa, which was usually assigned to an adult.

With salsa music playing, everyone talking and laughing, and Mama leading the pastele-making production line, we filled her home with holiday cheer. While I hold these memories dear to my heart, it isn't surprising to find that many Puerto Ricans and Dominicans have similar stories to share.

"My parents would usually take out a day or two starting in November to shop, cook, and spread out all the ingredients and materials on our dining room table," chef Kevin Roman tells POPSUGAR. "Every year they created a sort of cooking line. You'd have grandparents, tios, tias, cousins, and siblings in a different order at the table, and everyone had a different job."

Roman, a Puerto Rican chef based in the New York City area, recalls how job duties in his family would include the men grating the vianda or root vegetables. The women would do the cooking, filling, and wrapping of the pasteles. The cousins would cut the strings that wrapped the pasteles and his siblings were responsible for counting and storing the pasteles in the freezer.

"There was always this amazing smell from the stewed pork, aromas from the grated vianda, achiote oil, and banana leaves," he says. "You can literally feel the holiday spirit due to the mixture of those magical aromas in the air. That smell became the staple aroma for me. That smell represented the holidays — Thanksgiving, Christmas, [and] noche buena! [It was] the official start of the holidays for me."

The tradition of pasteles in Puerto Rican and Dominican households is something that can be traced back to our Taíno ancestors. Lifestyle guru and chef, Kathleen Pagan, shares with POPSUGAR how the Indigenous people of the Caribbean contributed elements such as the use of root vegetables, while enslaved Africans brought to the islands by Spanish colonizers contributed unique spices and cooking techniques. A combination of the two paired with Spanish ingredients and cooking methods, resulted in pasteles, a term derived from the Spanish word for pastries. They are wrapped in a plantain or banana leaf along with parched paper and tied with twine to represent a present.

"In my family, the tradition has been passed down through generations as far as history shows," says Pagan, founder of Endlessly Elated. "Given the labor-intensive preparation, every Christmas season, or what we refer to as Pasteles season, my family and I gather in an assembly line approach to make these. Hours are spent around a table, each one of us executing our designated task, laughing, chatting, encapsulating what tradition means to us."

With the recent passing of her mother, Pagan says the tradition just won't be the same, but she's honoring it anyway.

"My cousin and I decided the tradition must go on and so while it might look different it will always be rooted in togetherness and celebration," she says.

As the years go by and the tradition continues, pasteles have evolved. While some may argue that the dishes' authenticity has been compromised, this culinary evolution helps almost anyone enjoy this delicious meal despite dietary constraints.

"From vegan and vegetarian options, like a jackfruit filling vs. meat filling to health-conscious variations, like adapting lighter ingredients such as lean meats, pasteles have certainly arrived," Pagan says. "I think whether it's a gluten-free variation or a twist on the traditional ones, keeping this Christmas staple going, in the end, is what matters most. A true amalgamation of culture."

Chef Roman has seen the evolution take place with pasteles as well, including the variation of chickpeas, olives, and raisins as the filling without any meat. But if you ask him, Roman says he's a man of tradition.

"Pork shoulder for sure," he says about his personal favorite. "I like to keep things nostalgic or at least what is nostalgic to me so I always do pork shoulder."

Both Roman and Pagan agree that any pasteles dish is upgraded slightly with the right beverage accompaniment or side dish. For sure we can always wash down a yummy pastele with a nice creamy coquito. But there are other options as well. Ramon says you can't go wrong with Palo Viejo rum and coke with some ice and lime, or a Medalla beer.

For a side dish, Pagan says there is something she can't live without. "The Puerto Rican staples are pernil and arroz con gandules," she says. "Definite musts. The melt-in-your-mouth texture of the pernil combined with the sort of nuttiness from the arroz con gandules, all paired with the mildly sweet yet savory taste of these pasteles are just heavenly."

The tastes, the smells, the laughter and joy, that pasteles bring each holiday season is priceless. It's not something you can bottle up and sell. It is the heart and soul that goes way beyond the holiday dinner table.

"If there's one thing these memories have taught me is that we are all here on borrowed time so enjoy the moments with those you love when you can," Roman adds.

Pagan concludes, "Pasteles truly symbolize more than what meets the eye. This simultaneously complex yet comforting dish symbolizes family, togetherness, and a gentle reminder of our rich, cultural history."