Food History, Great Reads

Unwrapping the Gift of Pasteles

December 23, 2020


When the first chill descends upon New York City, the search begins in earnest for pasteles — wrapped masa-and-meat filled bundles — to serve as part of many Nuyoricans’ holiday celebrations. From Thanksgiving through Three Kings’ Day, the search can be divided into two camps: those seeking Caribbean ingredients needed to make pasteles at home — including but very much not limited to: green banana, yautía, and banana leaf — and those asking neighbors and friends if la doña from last year is selling her famous pasteles again.

You see, taking on the task of the pastelada is no small feat. Every family, chef, and tía has their own recipe, but make no mistake: this is an all-day affair. There’s the laborious undertaking of grinding mass amounts of starchy vegetables; cooking a perfectly spiced stew filling; and individually wrapping each one in banana leaf and parchment paper. Then, an hour of boiling in hot, salty water before your pasteles are ready to be unwrapped like a gift on Christmas Day.

But it’s this labor of love, in fact, that makes homemade pasteles ripe for tradition. The whole family must get involved, assembly-line style, to complete the task. And around the table, while the grandkids are grating green bananas and abuela is tying the little packages together with twine, stories are shared and family bonds are formed.

We hear about such pasteles-making parties, as well as the more industrious entrepreneurs making big batches for sale, at Essex Market, where shoppers come from near and far to find the necessary ingredients. When Essex Market opened on the Lower East Side in 1940, the majority of its 475 merchants were of European decent, largely self-identifying as Italian, Jewish, and German. Then, in the 1950s, a large wave of Puerto Rican migrants moved to New York City where they settled largely in Spanish Harlem uptown, and Loisaida — a Nuyorican pronunciation of Lower East Side — downtown.

Soon Essex Market’s initial group of vendors found themselves working alongside Puerto Rican merchants selling all the roots, tubers, herbs and spices that are custom to their Caribbean-style cooking. Today, many of those original migrants, and their children and grandchildren, still live in the neighborhood and continue to shop at Essex Market for culantro, bacalao, and aji dulce chiles. The ones who moved to New Jersey or Long Island will make a special trip, knowing that most supermarkets don’t carry these products (and even if they do, they won’t be nearly as fresh as those from the Essex Market vendor who goes to Hunts Point Produce Market every morning before dawn).

Search the Internet for pasteles recipes, and you’ll soon find recommendations for how to make substitutions for ingredients that are harder to come by in a quote-unquote “American” grocery store: paprika for annatto, taro root for yautia. And although the Essex Market grocers that sell all the pasteles fixings are now owned by Dominican families (who, yes, have their own pasteles traditions!), the Puerto Rican community depends on the market’s family-owned groceries for everything need to make this holiday feast.

Of course, this year will be different. Many of the market’s shoppers and friends I spoke with aren’t planning to make their own pasteles for the holidays. Gatherings, if any, will be small, and the effort would be too much without an army of extended family members to help. People who might have otherwise traveled to Puerto Rico and successfully smuggled pasteles back from the island didn’t make the trip this year. But perhaps it’s not so much the pasteles themselves that people will miss; it’s the act of coming together around a single project, a labor of love, during a time when we crave community more than anything.

If you’re lucky, you might have a frozen pastel stashed away in the freezer, saved for a day just like this one.

Written by Lauren Margolis, Contributing Writer from Essex Market

  • Header: An assortment of roots and tubers traditional to Puerto Rican cooking, including the yellow yautia often used to make the masa for pasteles.
  • A customer shops at Viva Fruits & Vegetables inside Essex Market for ingredients imported from the Caribbean
  • Yanieries holds an armful of green bananas. She and her husband Francisco are co-owners of Luna Brothers, a Dominican-owned grocer at Essex Market.