The Borinkis and the Pastel

It’s Christmas time, 115 years ago, in 1900. Close to sixty Puerto Ricans arrived to the shores of Honolulu, Hawai’i. The journey lasted for a month, originally consisting of  about 100 travelers. The numbers dwindled as many abandoned ship, faced with food and water shortages [1]. After the US occupation of Puerto Rico in 1898, the sugar industry was on the decline, leaving many unemployed. Puerto Rican agrarian labor was being recruited around the world, including sugar plantations on the other side of the globe, in Hawai’i.

photo of a Puerto Rican family

Puerto Rican Family in Hawai’i, 1900 (Photo: Blase Camacho Souza) [1]

Sanchez Korrol describes this migration as follows:

“Between 1900 and 1901 eleven expeditions consisting of over 5,000 men, women and children were recruited by the Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association to work alongside Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, Portuguese and Italians in the pineapple and sugar fields of those Pacific islands […] As early as 1903, 539 Puerto Rican children were enrolled in Hawaiian schools. Within three years this figure rose to 650, and there are indications that Puerto Rican women were already employed as teachers as early as 1924. Puerto Ricans constituted 2.2 percent of the Hawaiian population in 1923, just over 5,000 individuals. Despite increased outmarriage, dispersal and isolation of Puerto Rican workers throughout the islands and limited involvement with the homeland, 9,551 individuals claimed a Puerto Rican identity in the 1950 census.” [2]

Puerto Ricans in Hawai’i came to be known as the Borinkis – a name derived from Boriken, the Taino name for Puerto Rico. More than a century since their arrival, the Borinkis are part of the interesting ethnic mixture found in Hawaii. According to recent estimates, Puerto Ricans make up the largest proportion of the growing Latino population in the state, followed by Mexicans [3]. Culinary heritage is maintained and reinvented. This includes the ganduri rice (arroz con gandules, rice with pigeon peas), bacalao salad, and the pasteles – although Borinkis refer to these as pastele. Puerto Rican food seems to be popular in Hawai’i, especially the pastele, including a variety of “Pastele Shops”, as the one below:

The Pastele Shop - Honolulu, HI, United States. Nana hungry for some pasteles.... Me too!!

The Pateles Shop (Honolulu, HI) (Photo: Yelp)

These shops denote the shift in the traditional significance of pasteles. In Puerto Rico, more than an everyday food, pasteles, along with its inseparable accompaniment, the arroz con gandules, is typically eaten in Christmas. Granted, we do save pasteles in the freezer, spreading them out on ocassion throughout the year. Yet, it is still strongly associated with the Navidades.

Furthermore, the Borinkis have reinvented the pastel into new interesting dishes.

First, the pastele sausage. I stumbled upon a version made by Kukui Sausage Company, in Hawai’i.  The sausage contains pork, bananas, salt, black pepper, tomato paste, and achiote oil, along with sodium phosphate and sodium nitrate:

Photo: Tasty Island Hawaii [4]

Photo: Tasty Island Hawaii

Tasty Island blogger describes the sausage as follows: “My favorite, and certainly the one shining with the most character and most true to it’s labeled name is the Pastele Sausage. While I won’t say you can taste the bananas in it, there’s something about that ingredient that gives this sausage its signature flavor. It’s really hard for me to describe this, but it’s really good and taste, well, like Pastele Sausage! Shouldn’t it?” [4]

Aside from the sausage, there is also a stew. The “pastele stew” is a less labor intensive concoction, served alongside white rice. Instead of creating the rectangular dumpling filled with meat and wrapped in a plantain leaf, the stew cooks everything in a single pot – and is also served at the pastele shops:

The Pastele Shop - Honolulu, HI, United States. Stew bowl with white rice

Pastele Stew from The Pastele Shop (Photo: Yelp)

Interested in trying this at home? Follow the recipe of Auntie Bea Rodrigues, directly from Hawai’i:

And if you have tried the pastele sausage or stew, please share your stories with us!

Buen Provecho and Feliz Navidad!

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  1. Chapin, HG. “Puerto Ricans Arrive in Hawaii”, https://www.hawaiianhistory.org/time-capsules/firsts/puerto-ricans-arrive-in-hawaii/
  2. Sanchez Korrol, V. “The Story of US Puerto Ricans, Part 2”, http://centropr.hunter.cuny.edu/education/puerto-rican-studies/story-us-puerto-ricans-part-two
  3. Hawaii’s Fastest Growing Population? Latinos, http://latino.foxnews.com/latino/lifestyle/2013/05/08/hawaiis-fastest-growing-population-is-latinos/

  4. “Kim Chee, Pastele and Chorizo Sausages”

    http://tastyislandhawaii.com/2007/07/28/kim-chee-pastele-and-chorizo-sausages/

Pasteles and Ketchup

Pasteles

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!