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What Are Pasteles?

Dan Harkins
By
Updated May 17, 2024
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In Latin America, pasteles are a traditional snack that is similar in looks and composition to the Mexican tamale. A main distinction for the former recipe, however, is the use of green bananas, plantains and potatoes in the making of the dough, called masa, which surrounds traditional tamale-style ingredients like pork, garlic, onion, green pepper and Latin spices. Plantain leaves and parchment paper are then used to wrap these treats before being cinched with string and boiled — another distinction from tamales, which are customarily fried in oil.

Pasteles are popular in many Latin American cultures, from Colombia in South America to Panama and the Dominican Republic in Central America. The Caribbean island nation of Puerto Rico, however, has perhaps the proudest tradition of pasteles making. These hot pockets and their close cousin, the tamale, have been made for at least 3,000 years, starting with indigenous tribes and on through colonial conquest.

The masa used for making pasteles helps to provide its distinctively rich and slightly sweet flavor. Bananas, potatoes, plantains and even taro root are boiled and then grated. These shavings are mashed with some milk, salt and oil before cooling in the refrigerator. The result is a malleable skin for the meat filling. To get a workable dough, one chef used a combination of five green bananas from mountainous regions, one plantain from coastal areas, 1.5 lbs (about 680 g) of taro and one peeled potato. Just a little milk and oil are then used to soften and meld these ingredients.

The filling for pasteles, known as relleno, can be made in a range of ways, though certain elements are standard. It is usually prepared like a stew, only with less stock. This process starts with oil and meat like pork shoulder or ham. Once the meat starts cooking, all the rest of the ingredients are added. Items like garlic, onion, tomato sauce, beans, olives, and a range of spices like cilantro, oregano, salt and pepper go in, along with diced potatoes in some variations.

After the filling, a rather complicated construction process ensues. A plantain or green banana leaf and parchment paper is laid down, and some oil is put on top. Then a dollop of masa goes into the paper and is flattened, followed by a hearty portion of relleno. The wrapping and dough are then rolled up and cinched with string to encase the filling for a final simmering in saltwater, which can take as long as an hour to cook through.

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Dan Harkins
By Dan Harkins
Dan Harkins, a former military professional, brings his diverse life experiences to his writing. After earning his journalism degree, he spent more than two decades honing his craft as a writer and editor for various publications. Dan’s debut novel showcases his storytelling skills and unique perspective by drawing readers into the story’s captivating narrative.
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Dan Harkins
Dan Harkins
Dan Harkins, a former military professional, brings his diverse life experiences to his writing. After earning his...
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