Around Christmas holiday time in Trinidad, West Indies, people who know how to make the cherished pastelle delicacy get together to make this historical, delicious culinary tradition of cornmeal pies stuffed with minced beef fillings.
The pastelle pies are so delicious, most Trinis continue to make them straight through into the Carnival season to take on cultural trips and fetes with family and friends.
Thought to have originated from the Spanish settlers, pastelles could have been passed down from Amerindian natives. Historical research points to similar recipes from Venezuela and Puerto Rico.
These cornmeal pies are steam cooked on banana leaves, but there can be variations of the recipe as not everyone has access to banana leaves. Although the most popular form is the minced beef version, you can make them with pork and beef mice, chicken mince, and for vegetarians soya mince, shredded fish or tuna are popular.
In some Latin American countries, they also make them with chick peas (channa), and I once read up a recipe using brown Lentils to replace the minced meat, cooked with other vegetables such as sweet peppers, tomatoes and sweet potatoes.
The variations in Trinidad is traditionally garnished with olives, capers and raisins or sultanas.
In Western countries such as United States and England, it is difficult to get fresh banana leaves. You can use foil to replace the banana leaves if you can’t find them to buy wherever you are, but I have to say, it really is best with the banana leaves, as they infuse aromatic flavours and moisture into the cornmeal and filling.
Also, some people prefer to cook the onions and garlic first and then add the meat ingredient, but if say, the meat isn’t fully thawed out, you can pre-cook the meat first and then cook it in with the onions and garlic.
If you are using banana leaves, you need to prepare them for cooking. Wash and dry them, then cut them to fit the width of the pastelle and the length of the wrapping, I would say about 8 inch squares, then pass them over low heat on both sides to make them a bit more pliable.
There are lots of recipes available online, but I will provide an example of a beef mince, or beef with chicken combination recipe, similar to the one I have used.
- 2 cups yellow cornmeal, fine or coarse.
- 3 cups hot water
- 1/2 cup butter
- 1 1/4 tsp salt
Combine cornmeal with butter and salt.
Add water and mix to make a soft, pliable dough. If it’s too sticky, you can add more cornmeal until it can drop into a ball.
Divide the dough into small balls. Cover with dry cloth or clean kitchen towel.
Place one piece of dough on a greased fig leaf, or foil, and press into an eight-inch square.
Spoon two tablespoons of filling onto the middle of the dough.
Fold over from the bottom half and seal pastelles.
Wrap in fig leaf and tie with string into a neat package.
If using foil, fold from bottom half to cover over the meat filling. Seal the pastelle by folding the top of the foil into pleats to meet the top edge of the covered pastelle. Fold both sides to meet the ends of the pastelle.
When finished wrapping and filling all the dough, drop pastelles into one or two large posts of boiling water. Steam pastelles for 20 minutes until cooked.
Chicken and/or Beef pastelle filling
- 1 lb chopped beef and chicken, chicken only, or beef only
- 2 onions, finely chopped
- 2 tbs olive or vegetable oil
- 1 cup chopped chives
- 2 pimento peppers, chopped
- 4 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1 tbs chopped celery
- 1/2 hot pepper, seeded and chopped (optional)
- 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/4 cup tomato sauce
- 4 tbs capers
- 3 tbs stuffed olives, sliced
- 1/4 cup raisins
- 2 tbs fresh thyme
Combine beef with chicken, or beef only, or chicken only. Add salt and black pepper.
Season with chopped chives and thyme.
In a large cooking pan heat oil.
Add onion and garlic. Sauté until fragrant.
Add pimento peppers and hot pepper is using any.
Add meat and cook until brown.
Add tomato sauce, cover and simmer for about 15 minutes.
Add raisins, capers and olives and stir to combine.
Cook for about five minutes more. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Remove from heat and cool.
Prepare dough as in recipe above. Fill and fold pastelles as indicated.
For vegetarian options, you can substitute the meat recipe with shredded fish or can tuna, or Quorn/soya mince.