Pastele:  Presents Wrapped in Tin Foil

The Puerto Rican pastele made its way to Hawaii from San Juan in 1900 and has been a local favorite ever since

By Cara Fasone

Almost more than I miss my family, I crave the only-in-Hawaii regional cuisine. Ono kine grindz are the stick-to-your-ribs, comfort food that you can only get in our mixed plate of a state. Hawaii is known for its unique Pacific Rim cuisine, which borrows flavors from Asia, Polynesia, and Europe. Often we overlook the Latin influence in the islands, but it is a significant "local" food too. One of my favorites is the Puerto Rican pastele, pronounced patele in Hawaii.

Pastele from Wat Get? Kitchen
Photo by Cara Fasone

Roadside Snacks

I have fond memories of driving around the island from my house in Mililani (Central Oahu,) to the North Shore and all the way to the Windward side. The best part of the circle-island trip is stopping on the side of the road to buy local produce and homemade goods like the Puerto Rican pastele.  The pastele is a meat pie, flavored with the Caribbean achiote spice, lined with grated green bananas and stuffed with stewed pork and olives. 

History of Patele In Hawaii

When hurricanes devastated the Puerto Rican agricultural economy  in 1899, market demand for Hawaiian sugar grew. The islands’ plantation owners also sought more experienced workers. On December 23, 1900, the first group of Puerto Rican laborers arrived in the islands to work the land. With them, they brought their culture, music, and of course their recipe for the pastele.

What's for Dinner?

Growing up, my weekly dinner menu was an international affair. My mom, a sansei (3rd generation Japanese-American), and Palolo Valley native, could cook everything from Filipino Pork Guisantes to Portuguese Bean Soup to Guamanian ribs. The only thing my mom wouldn’t try to make is the pastele. She claimed it tasted better from a Puerto Rican, but she admitted that she didn't want to make it because grating the green bananas and making the masa was too time-consuming.

Another glamour shot of the pastele
Photo by Cara Fasone

Like the Mexican tamale, the local pastele is made in bulk during the holidays with the whole family. When I’m home, my mom and I pick up frozen pasteles from our favorite Puerto Rican spot in Waipahu, Wat Get? Kitchen. My mom steams the little packages in a big pot and we wait in anticipation.

Peeling apart the tin foil is like unwrapping a present. You can feel the warm masa on your fingertips; you break into it with a fork to find chunks of savory pork and olives. It’s full of rich achiote flavor, like nothing you’ve ever tried before.

Patele Stew

Over the years, Hawaiians have deconstructed the pastele and made it into a stew. Patele stew is a popular entrée in a plate lunch because it is perfect with our traditional macaroni salad and rice.  Hawaii is the only place in the world where you can get pastele stew.  

Pastele Stew at the Eat the Street festival
Photo by Cara Fasone

On my last trip home I attended, Eat the Street, a food truck and vendor festival in Kakaako Park, where I got to try patele stew for myself. It was like a Reggaeton party in my mouth. Patele stew has everything I love in a pastele; juicy bites of pork, salty olives, spice, flavor, but it is so much more saucy and amazing over rice. I savored every last spoonful. 

Although there are a couple Puerto Rican restaurants in Los Angeles that make pastele, in my humble-but-biased opinion, the Hawaiian version tastes better. I have yet to find pastele stew in California, so I guess I’m going to have to learn to make it myself. I miss the Asian fusion in local food, but I can’t forget the unique flavors of Hawaii’s Puerto Rican cuisine.

Where are your favorite spots for pastele?

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