Trinidad & Tobago has black cake and ponche de creme. In Jamaica, it’s sorrel and gungo peas and rice. For a true taste of Christmas in Puerto Rico, you’ll want to pair your coquito with the tightly-wrapped palatable present pictured above.
It’s called a pastel, a word that literally translates to “cake” in English.
This pastel is no dessert, however. Quite the contrary, actually. Inside is a hearty and often spicy mash usually consisting of plantains, yams, pumpkin, potato, and pork, all of it seasoned with adobo and other tropical herbs and spices.
The entire thing gets wrapped twice – first in banana leaves, then in parchment paper that’s tied with kitchen string to hold all the goodness together. Boiled for an hour and served piping hot, pasteles are a real treat.
Easily among the oldest culinary traditions still enjoyed throughout the Caribbean, pasteles date all the way back to the days of the Taino Indians. You’ll find them on Holiday Season menus everywhere these Indians used to roam – from the Dominican Republic on down to Trinidad & Tobago.
In Puerto Rico, though, the practice of preparing pasteles has been elevated to an art form, with ever-inventive chefs substituting traditional ingredients for cassava, rice, raisins, olives, and more to create exciting new flavors.
One of the best times to visit Puerto Rico and savor all these inventive new pasteles is late-November, right at the start of the Holiday Season. Head to the town of Orocovis, located right smack dab in the middle of the island in the Central Mountain Range. That’s when and where you’ll find the Festival del Pastel.
The three-day festival is surely among the most uncommon and yummy food festivals held annually in the region. We’ll have to make a point of checking it out soon.
If you want to add pasteles to your Christmas menu now, though, check out this recipe, or try to find a Puerto Rican restaurant in your area that serves ’em.
Here in South Florida, I bought a few at La Cocina Puertorriqueña last night. They’re not quite like mom used to make, but they’re plenty rico enough to fill me with good cheer.
¡Buen provecho y feliz navidad!