Puerto Rico’s Answer to the Tamale

Food writer Von Diaz shares her own family recipe for pasteles de masa, the classic celebration dish

Pasteles De Masa (looks like tamales) rolled into green banana leaves on plates on a white background

Photo: Lauren Vied Allen

The process of making pasteles, a Puerto Rican Christmas staple, is as important as eating them. There are many steps—cooking the meat; preparing the masa; cutting banana leaves, parchment paper, and twine to exactly the right lengths. But making them is a joy, a way to come together with family over the holidays, and every cook has a special touch. Perfect pasteles are the work of abuelitas and tias, grandmas and aunties, who seem to have a preternatural ability when it comes to this dish. This is my grandmother’s recipe, and the smell of boiling pasteles is a time portal into her kitchen. —Von Diaz, Islas: A Celebration of Tropical Cooking

Read our Q&A with Von Diaz here, and join her on a culinary trip across Puerto Rico here


  • Pasteles De Masa (Yield: 24 pasteles)

  • For the sofrito

    • 1 medium red bell pepper, seeded and quartered

    • 3 aji dulce, amarillo, or mild banana chile peppers, seeded and coarsely chopped (see tip)

    • 6 large garlic cloves

    • 1 large yellow onion, coarsely chopped

    • 6 fresh culantro sprigs, both leaves and tender stems, coarsely chopped (see tip)

    • 6 fresh cilantro sprigs, both leaves and tender stems, coarsely chopped

  • For the pork

    • 2 lb. boneless, skinless pork shoulder, cut into ½-inch pieces

    • 1 tbsp. olive oil

    • 2 tbsp. finely grated peeled fresh ginger

    • 1 cup sofrito

    • ⅓ cup fresh orange juice

    • ¾ cup vegetable oil or lard (for the annatto oil)

    • 3 tbsp. annatto seeds (for the annatto oil)

  • For the masa

    • 8 lb. yautía or taro root, a mix of white and yellow 15 green bananas (see tips)

    • 2 cups milk

    • 2 ½ tbsp. kosher salt

    • 8 large banana leaves, or enough for 24 12-inch pieces

    • Kosher salt

  • Fillings

    • One 15½-oz. can garbanzo beans, drained

    • One 10-oz. jar pimento-stuffed olives

    • 1 tbsp. capers in brine, drained and chopped

    • 1½ cups black or golden raisins (optional)

    • Steamed white rice, for serving

    • Pique (hot sauce) for serving


  1. Make the sofrito: In a food processor or blender, blend the bell pepper, chile peppers, and garlic until smooth. Add the onion and blend until smooth, then add the culantro and cilantro and blend until smooth. The sofrito will keep, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 1 week or in the freezer for up to 6 months.

  2. Make the annatto oil: In a small saucepan over medium-high, heat the oil and annatto seeds. Once the oil starts to shimmer, remove from the heat, stir to combine, and let rest for 5 minutes. Using a fine-mesh sieve, strain the oil into a heat-safe container and set aside.

  3. Make the pork: Combine the pork, olive oil, ginger, sofrito, and orange juice. Let marinate while you prepare the masa, or overnight if possible.

  4. Make the masa: Peel and chop the yautía and green bananas, and transfer to a large bowl with water so they don’t brown. In a food processor, blend the drained yautía and green bananas with the milk and salt, working in batches depending on the size of your food processor. The masa will be thick and smooth, with no large pieces. Refrigerate until ready to use. 

  5. Cook the pork: Heat a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the marinated pork along with any remaining marinade, bring to a simmer, then lower the heat to low and cook, covered, for 30 to 45 minutes, until it’s tender and falling apart. Try to resist the temptation to snack on it, or your pasteles will suffer the consequences. 

  6. Meanwhile, cut twenty-four 12-inch lengths of kitchen twine. Cut twenty-four 12-inch squares of parchment paper, then the same number and size squares of banana leaves.

  7. Bring a large stockpot, about half full of water and 1 tbsp. of salt, to a boil. Once boiling, lower the heat to a low simmer until ready to cook the pasteles. 

  8. On a long table or countertop, set up your pasteles station in this order: twine, parchment, banana leaves, annatto oil, masa, pork, and toppings. Set two pieces of twine crosswise, then layer the parchment and then the banana leaves. Using a small spoon, spread a light layer of annatto oil on each leaf. Scoop 3 tbsp. of masa on top, spreading lengthwise in a rectangular shape with a large spoon. Add the pork, garbanzos, olives, capers, and raisins (if using) in a single layer—just a few pieces of each, being careful not to overfill. 

  9. Starting with the banana leaves, fold from the outside in, like a taco, to completely cover the pork filling with masa. Roll the leaf ends and tuck them underneath, then repeat the process with parchment paper, then tie up each parcel with twine lengthwise and crosswise, like a gift. Continue making packets until all the masa has been used. Leftover pork filling can be stored in the freezer for up to several months, or eaten with steamed white rice. Transfer the pasteles to the refrigerator if cooking immediately, or to the freezer if you plan to cook them later. 

  10. To cook the pasteles, add them in batches to the pot of boiling water, six to eight at a time depending on the size of your pot (see tips), ensuring that all pasteles are covered with water. Cook for 1 hour, until pasteles are firm to the touch (you will have to cook for a bit longer if cooking from frozen; see tips). When done, remove using tongs to a cutting board. 

  11. Let the pasteles rest for 10 minutes before serving. Cut twine, unwrap each pastel, and serve alongside steamed white rice with pique.

  12. Tips: Green bananas are distinct from plantains, as they have a milder, sweeter flavor, and are ideal for this dish.

  13. If you put more than eight pasteles in the pot to boil, they will take 15 to 30 minutes longer to cook.

  14. Pasteles can be boiled directly from the freezer, but will take closer to 2 hours.

  15. If you can’t find annatto seeds, replace the annatto oil with 3 tbsp. bacon fat, lard, or vegetable oil combined with 2 tbsp. of ground annatto.

  16. If you can’t find aji dulce or amarillo peppers, use another half of a bell pepper—yellow or orange—to add color!

  17. Culantro, also called sawtooth herb or wild coriander, has long leaves with jagged edges and a stronger, earthier flavor than cilantro. You can find it in the produce section of most Latin American markets, as well as many Asian grocery stores.

A bright cookbook with Carribean dishes

Excerpted with permission from Islas: A Celebration of Tropical Cooking—125 Recipes from the Indian, Atlantic, and Pacific Ocean Islands by Von Diaz, © 2024. Photographs © Lauren Vied Allen. Published by Chronicle Books.


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