Pasteles are Taino

Jeannie Karayani Calcano-McDonald connecting to her roots by making pasteles.
Photo courtesy of Bohio de Atabey

by Roberto Borrero

With the Holidays upon us, families across the Caribbean and beyond will soon be serving up all manner of traditional meals. On the island of Boriken ( Puerto Rico ) for example, no traditional holiday feast would be compete without a particular savory TAINO delight known as PASTELES.

To begin, it should be understood that Pasteles are indeed of indigenous origin. In fact, a type of pasteles – the “Mexican” tamale or tamalli in Nahuatl – can be traced back as early as 5000 BC.

Pasteles are a food consisting of boiled or steam-cooked “masa” (dough) with or without a filling. Pasteles can be filled with meats, vegetables or really any preparation according to taste. Today, pastels are generally wrapped in plantain leaves and parchment paper before cooking.

In any case, as food is a particularly favorite subject of mine I thought I would share a little of what I know about pasteles from my family oral tradition as well as what I have learned from other elders I have shared meals with over the years.

Making pasteles is a family affair. It has always been a special time to strengthen family ties, renew friendships, and share life lessons with the younger generations.

Even today, making pasteles is still a family affair, for example, your Mom might grate the yucca or guineo, while an aunt will prepare the masa, grandma could be seasoning the meat to perfection, and a cousin can literally wrap the whole process up nicely.

As I understand it, in Boriken, there were at least three and possibly more original “pasteles” - one made from mais (corn), one from yuka, and another from yautia. If you thought you were the only Boricuas making pasteles from yuka, my sisters and brothers, – we Tainos taught you that hundreds of years ago.

In fact, yuka and yautia are Taino words. “Mais” derives from the Taino word maisi. And the Taino word for pasteles made from corn is guanime.

So while your family is enjoying what I call an original Taino comfort food, please keep in mind and share that by eating pasteles you are actually continuing an indigenous tradition thousands of years in the making.

If seen in this light, sayings like “you are what you eat” may take on a whole new meaning.

Roberto Borrero is on staff at the American Museum of Natural History in its Department of Education. He also serves as Chairman of the NGO Committee on the United Nations International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples and President of the Office of International Relations and Regional Coordination for United Confederation of Taino People

*This article originally appears in La Diva Latina Magazine

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