Pasteles and Ketchup


We got our first pasteles in New York. They are in the freezer – half a dozen – waiting for a nice arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas) to be paired with. We’ll eat these in Christmas. Most likely we’ll put a little bit of ketchup and pique (hot sauce) on top. Yes. I said ketchup. And I may be taking a risk confessing this. To some Puerto Ricans, eating pasteles with ketchup is a culinary aberration – an issue best understood through this music video:

Music Video: "Pasteles con Ketchup"

The song and video portrays the very interesting debate I want to explore next. 

First, what exactly are pasteles? For the non-Puerto Rican Spanish-speaking reader, the word pastel evokes the image of a pastry, in some cases a cake. Usually, we tend to explain pasteles simply as the Puerto Rican version of the tamal. If I may, pasteles are a much more complicated version. Let’s take for example the Cuban tamal as a point of comparison, using the recipe from Cuban culinary icon Nitza Villapol’s Cocina al Minuto. Her Tamal en Hoja has 11 ingredients in total and 5 steps, including cooking. In comparison, a recipe for a pastel may have as many as 22 ingredients and 33 steps. In Carmen Aboy Valldejuli’s Cocina Criolla (the Puerto Rican “culinary bible”), the recipe for her Pasteles “Mamie” takes 4 pages, dividing the process in three parts: the filling (16 ingredients, 11 steps), the dough (6 ingredients, 6 labor intensive steps), and the actual construction and cooking of the pastel (16 steps, including a diagram).

From Valldejuli’s Cocina Criolla: Diagram to help comprehend the way to form the pastel

Like most Puerto Ricans in my generation, I have never attempted to make pasteles. It is quite a feat and one I think most of us Puerto Rican food lovers might like to take on someday.  We rely on small entrepreneurs, mostly Puerto Rican doñitas (and some dones as well), to take on the task and sell for about $2/pastel. Finding a “pastel connection” is not a straight forward act either, but once you find your connection, you are loyal to that person. You defend their pasteles, as your own achievement on finding this connection. You recommend them and fight with others as to who can bring to the table the best ones and at the best price.

The last step in the pasteles’ preparation is to boil them for about 45 minutes. Go over the cooking time, and they are ruined. Next, you need to unwrap them, being careful of not getting burned or stained from the water with achiote hiding in the wrapping. And – finally! – the pastel is on the plate. Can you pass the ketchup?

Just bringing this condiment to the table might be a sign of disrespect. How can you ruin a pastel with ketchup after all the work someone put into making it? Now, I have to say that in thinking of this issue I realize that we put ketchup on many things: burgers, eggs, rice, steak, fried chicken, beans, alcapurrias…However, these do not come with such an outrage.

An academic take on the merging of pasteles with ketchup can bring the symbolism of this dish as the current state of Puerto Rican culture. The ingredients in the pastel, the root crops both from African ancestors and from Tainos are merged with contributions from Spain (pork) and the Middle East (garbanzo). The long process of preparing can be symbolic of our history and struggles, resulting in the very mixed Puerto Rican “race”.

Is the rejection of this new ingredient, the ketchup, a rejection on the influence of the United States in our culture?

Like ketchup on a pastel, U.S. influence in Puerto Rico has resulted in an ever increasing influx of fast food chains – and highly processed foods. This food colonization is not unique to Puerto Rico. We share this with other Latin American countries and the rest of the world. Globalization and the “Macdonalization” of diets worldwide is certainly a huge topic to be further unpacked. Is the adamant rejection of even trying pasteles con ketchup an assertion (conscious or unconscious) of Puertorriqueñidad? As some may reject pasteles con ketchup, are these same people rejecting Starbucks over the local café? Are these individuals skipping the ever increasing influx of US-based chains over the amazing array of local restaurants?

But back at the more simple argument – devoiding the conversation from the politics of our Puerto Rican identity – the pasteles are just too labor intensive, too precious to ruin with this awfully processed red sauce.  And yes, it is quite a processed product with high fructose corn syrup and unnamed “natural flavors”, as seen in a store-bought bottle.

But what if you made your own? Could changing ketchup from an imported, highly processed bottled sauce to a home-made condiment bring the opposition to at least try the combination?

A basic tomato ketchup is made out of tomato, onion, vinegar, sugar, and salt. With the help of a blender, you can make it at home. The process may take you about 30 minutes, depending on the ingredients, plus a 2+ hours of refrigeration for flavors to develop from a tomato sauce to ketchup. It is the sugar and the salt help accentuate the flavor of the pastel – that is, if used wisely. The ingredients themselves are not entirely foreign, and may even be included already in other parts of the meal.

The controversy over pasteles with ketchup is hardly settled, and may continue on for years to come. Where do you stand in the debate? Please share your own views below.

¡Feliz Navidad!