With the holiday season upon us, families across the Caribbean and the Diaspora will soon be serving up all manner of traditional meals. However, on the island of Borikén (Puerto Rico) there are many who would say that no traditional holiday feast would be complete without a particular culinary delight of indigenous Taíno origin commonly known as pasteles or “pasteles de hoja.”
It should be understood from the outset that no matter what alterations they have undergone over the years, pasteles de hoja are indeed of indigenous origin. In fact, the elder relative of Caribbean pasteles is the “Mexican” corn tamale or tamalli in the indigenous Nahuatl language. The tamalli can be traced back as early as 5000 BC.
Caribbean pasteles, like other tamalli-type foods, consist of boiled or steam-cooked “masa” (dough), usually prepared with an added filling such as meat, vegetables, or both, according to taste or tradition. Today, the masa is most commonly wrapped in plantain leaves and parchment paper before cooking.
Making pasteles is a family affair. It has always been a time to strengthen family ties, renew friendships, and share life lessons with the younger generations. Make no mistake, there is a lot of work that goes into making pasteles. For example, one family member might be tasked with guayando (grating) the iuka (yuca/cassava) or plantain/green bananas, while another will prepare the masa or perhaps be in charge of trimming the plantain leaves. Someone else may take on preparing the seasonings, while another can literally wrap the whole process up nicely. As one can imagine, there are probably as many traditional recipes for pasteles as there are kitchens across the islands. During the holiday season, it is not uncommon for some families to prepare many, many dozens, which will be shared with other family members or sold to others.
As I understand it, on the island of Borikén and other islands, before the arrival of Europeans in the 15th century, there were at least three and possibly more original “pasteles.” One original pastel was made from maisi (corn), one from iuka, and the other from the iautía (yautía). The term iautía refers to the plant Xanthosoma sagittifolium, not malanga (taro) as sometimes claimed. However, malanga is an ingredient for pasteles used by some families today.
Mais(i), iuka, and iautia are all Taíno words. The Taíno word for pasteles with some type of added filler, meat or vegetable or both is taiuio (tayuyo). The Taino word for another type of pastel, made from corn without any filling is called guanime. The term taiuio is still used today in parts of Cuba and the Dominican Republic. In some areas, pasteles made from iuka are called haiaka (hayaca) or “hallaca de yuca.”
So during the holidays or whenever your family is fortunate enough to be enjoying what I refer to as an original Taíno comfort food, one should keep in mind that by eating pasteles you are actually continuing an indigenous tradition thousands of years in the making. Seen in this light, a saying like “you are what you eat” may take on a whole new meaning.