Latinfoodie Goes to Europe

Hello Friends, I’m thrilled to share with you my first international byline! I have just been published in Sabor, a food magazine distributed in the Netherlands. For their Winter 2011 issue, I had the honor of covering Latin American tamales, prepared throughout the Caribbean and Venezuela during the Holidays. The story has been translated to Dutch, but here’s the original story in English. Hope it’s what you need to kick off a wonderful and blessed Holiday season! ¡Felices Fiestas!

Kerstpakketjes by Karina Taveras

A Family Affair: Tamales in Latin America

For someone like Veronica Rodriguez, the arrival of October means only one thing: It’s time to make pasteles. During the following three months, she will transform her Staten Island kitchen into the production hub of a holiday pasteles business. Rodriguez, 37, a home cook who grew up in Brooklyn, New York will round up her family using her grandmother’s recipe to make and sell over 1,500 pasteles, a Caribbean-style tamal, to the immigrant communities of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Cubans living in New York City.

“I find that making pasteles is a family ritual more than anything else,” said Rodriguez.

Like the pasteles from Puerto Rico, hallacas from Venezuela are another close relative to the Mexican tamal prepared exclusively during the holiday season. Both pasteles and hallacas involve folding a porous dough over a stew-like filling of shredded meat to make rectangular bundles, which are wrapped in a plantain leaf and tied up like a gift. These Latin American tamales are similar in form, but also in function: all of them celebrate the importance of family.

Rodriguez, who started making pasteles when she was 5 years old, remembers how she would be tasked with cutting the string used to tie up the bundle, while she watched her grandmother grate the plantain and the yucca for the dough, or masa. It wasn’t until years later that she “graduated” to grating. Now she’s been making and selling the pasteles in her home kitchen for the past 18 years.

Before production begins, Rodriguez invites her family to join her for the weekend. Relatives in nearby Ohio and Pennsylvania flock to her kitchen, landing a spot along the two banquet tables in her kitchen to grate, chop, simmer, boil, and wrap the first batch of nearly 600 pasteles that Rodriguez will sell at the end of October. She will repeat the process twice, during the Thanksgiving holiday and again for Christmas, before the end of the year.

“It’s the fundamental dish of the Holiday season,” said Ricardo Romero, owner of Arepas Café, a Venezuelan restaurant in New York City that sells Venezuelan hallacas from the beginning of December until early January. Even though it’s hard work to prepare them – it usually takes 1 to 2 full days – it does its main job well: to bring people together. “When people get together to make hallacas it’s the prettiest time of the Holidays,” said Romero, recalling how families and friends come together when the hallaca-making season kicks off, to share food and drinks, and joke over who makes the best hallacas (Mom does, of course).

The Venezuelan hallaca is more similar to the Mexican tamal than the pastel in that its masa is made of corn with a pinch of annatto powder, which turns the dough a bright yellow color. An hallaca should encompass all flavors in a perfectly balanced way: it will be salty, pungent, sweet, and spicy. In order to make an hallaca, a ball of masa is spread over the leaf until it is as thin as a crepe. Romero uses a mixture of chicken, pork, and beef as the filling, or guiso, which is placed in the center, which is adorned with raisins, olives, capers, pickled vegetables, and prunes. The hallaca is then rolled in a plantain leaf, folded and tied with the twine. After it is boiled, it is unwrapped to resemble a plump and glossy pocket, similar to the tamal in shape, but bigger in size.

Patricia Jinich, Mexican chef and TV host, describes the ubiquitous tamal as “food for celebrating and sharing”. According to Jinich, tamales are an integral part of the Mexican culture. They are prepared and served at every occasion throughout the year, always present at family gatherings and special celebrations, and also available at any time from humble food carts on the street. The varied flavors for masas and fillings of a tamal are usually tied to a particular region in Mexico. In the center of the country, it’s common to find tamales with salsa verde, in the North, a type of tamal called “coloradito”, meaning little red one, which gets its color from the adobo seasoning used to make it. In the South, it’s tamales “colados” or strained, which have a thinner masa, and in the Oaxaca region, a plantain leaf replaces a corn husk. Tamales can also range from savory to sweet. They can be filled with chicken, pork, rajas (roasted poblano chiles sautéed with herbs), vegetables, and zucchini blossoms. Sweet tamales usually served for dessert in tamal-centric parties called Tamaladas are stuffed with dried fruits, sugar, milk caramel sauce called “cajeta”, and nutella spread.

Back in her kitchen, Rodriguez is no stranger to variety, as she tends to accommodate her customers’ special requests. Her Dominican and Cuban clientele often asks her to add raisins to the filling. Puerto Ricans, on the other hand, prefer chickpeas and potatoes. Rodriguez also combines unique ingredients in her pasteles, joining plantain with native Caribbean tubers like the malanga and yautía to make a sweeter masa, and preparing codfish, shrimp, or goat stew as fillings when adventurous palates demand it.

Though she has adjusted her recipe throughout the years due to the availability of ingredients and the changing demands of her customers, she’s still able to gather her Puerto Rican family around the kitchen every year. For Rodriguez, it’s about cooking, and so much more.

“It becomes a weekend of catching up, ‘bochinchando’”, she said.

5 Responses to Latinfoodie Goes to Europe

  1. Terry Hope says:

    How neat! It’s surreal to see hallaca instructions in Dutch, congrats.

  2. Dr.Taveras says:

    Your description of the tamales and hallacas makes me extremely hungry! Thanks for sharing this wonderful story and tradition.

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