If you asked the average Trini about the components of a good Christmas meal, I’m positive they’ll mention ham and turkey but their eyes will light up with delight when they mention pastelles.
Pastelles are small meat-filled polenta (cornmeal) pies that many believe were introduced by our Spanish colonisers who ruled between the late 15th and early 18th centuries.
They exist in some form or another throughout Latin America and are more commonly known there as hallacas, pronounced hayacas.
The origins of pastelles are unclear but there are two definite theories about how they came into being.
One view is that Spanish colonists who settled in the region made them as a substitute for one of their favourite delicacies – empanada gallega.
Empanada gallega and pastelles both have heavily spiced meaty fillings but pastelles are made with cornmeal while the empanada is more like a typical pastry as it’s made with white flour.
Interestingly, just up the Caribbean archipelago in Puerto Rico, there’s a delicacy similar to empanada gallega known as pastelillos.
The other theory of pastelle origin is that Spanish plantation owners in Venezuela gave their servants and slaves the leftovers from the Christmas meal.
The slaves used polenta to make a ‘foo foo’ type mixture they stuffed with the meat and cooked in banana leaves.
The use of bananas leaves to cook pastelles has been attributed to the African slaves as that method of cooking had been in use in Africa for centuries. Check out this Central African recipe for Baton de Manioc and Chigwankue that employs a similar cooking method to pastelles.
Complex and time consuming
I’d love to know how many pastelles we eat in Trinidad and Tobago annually over the Christmas season, I’d say it’s several hundred thousand.
I ate my fair share of pastelles between 1996 and 1999 when I worked as the Society Editor for the Trinidad Express. Having to cover a lot of functions meant eating a lot of pastelles, good and bad.
Chef Eldon Thompson’s pastelles were among the best I’ve ever eaten. The consistency of the cornmeal was perfect as he obviously used a fine grade of cornmeal and the filling was always well-seasoned and juicy. I’ve also had some really bad pastelles where the cornmeal was too grainy or too lardy, or the filling was dry and bland.
Another thing that contributes to the failure of perfectly good pastelles is warming them up in the microwave which dries them out horribly.
The typical pastelle is filled with beef or pork with raisins and capers, but in recent years, cooks have used vegetables, fish, chicken and even soya to satisfy a range of dietary requirements. I plan to make pastelles this year and I want to make two types – soya and game.
Pastelle making is a somewhat complex and time consuming exercise, and it’s not uncommon for people to have ‘pastelle parties’ to get as much help as possible. I’m definitely going to get some people in on the act when I make my pastelles.
There’s a contraption called a pastelle press that some people use to get the cornmeal mix as flat as possible before filling and folding the pastelle, but in my experience, that’s not necessary – a rolling pin or your hands will do quite nicely.
I can’t forget to mention that pastelles go really well with chow chow or piccalilli, a condiment made from chopped vegetables and hot spices, generally mustard.
In my next post, I’ll give recipes for pastelles and chow chow. If anyone has pastelle recipes, feel free to email them to me.