After Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, it took two weeks for Harry Franqui-Rivera to reach his 76-year-old mother, Amelia, by phone at her home on the island’s west coast.
When he did, Mr. Franqui-Rivera, a history professor at Bloomfield College in New Jersey, found that her main concern wasn’t the lack of electricity or running water. It was the loss of her Christmas pasteles.
Without power, Ms. Rivera de Franqui had to throw out the pounds of green bananas she had already grated to make the dough for the savory bundles sometimes described as the Puerto Rican version of tamales.
A centuries-old blend of Taino Indian, Spanish and African flavors, pasteles are a prime example of Puerto Rico’s cocina criolla — Creole cooking — made not with cornmeal masa but with a mash of green bananas and plantains bolstered by sturdy Caribbean root crops like yautia and yuca. Wrapped in a smoky-sweet banana leaf, they’re typically filled with seasoned meat, stained with sunset-hued annatto oil and boiled up by the dozen at any gathering held between Thanksgiving and Three Kings Day on Jan. 6.
“There’s no holiday if there’s no pasteles,” said Mr. Franqui-Rivera, 45, who, like many members of the Puerto Rican diaspora, used to tote them back to the mainland frozen in his suitcase — until he insisted that his mother show him her recipe. This year, with groceries and electricity still in short supply on the island, he will execute what he calls Operation Pasteles, bringing frozen masa to his mother from his kitchen in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
Anyone who has ever made pasteles (to pronounce it, you skip over the last letter: PAH-tey-ay) will understand Ms. Rivera’s plight.
Pastel-making is fraught with time-consuming tasks, the hardest being the making of the banana-and-plantain masa. Equally taxing is the layering of ingredients — masa; either meat, seafood or vegetables; and Spanish-style extras like olives, raisins or chickpeas — onto sheets of banana leaf and parchment paper. Those are all folded into rectangular little packages and tied up, two at a time, into a pair of pasteles that everyone calls “la junta.” (And before anyone can take a bite, each pastel must be boiled for an hour.)
“They are a pain in the balloons,” said Hernan Rodriguez, 52, who was born in Puerto Rico and has lived in New York City since 1987. His wife, the food…