I don’t cook like anyone but myself. So, I think. My heritage comes from many places and tastes. My tastes that came from my family are not the same as my aunts, uncles, cousins or brothers and sisters. We all like different things. We all didn’t like different things. My grandmother adored curry and I know a few people in my family that can’t even stand the smell of curry. We all came from the same place. I use curry in many things, from chicken and rice to egg salad. To me it’s a taste from my past I am very connected to. Ask someone else in my family and their answer will be quite different.
There are many good cooks in my family. Outstanding cooks, I should say. I have been homesick the past few days just knowing my cousin Dan is making Pastels this weekend. This is a family ‘connection’. My grandmother made them. She made them better than anyone. I even went to Trinidad, the country where she brought them from, and sadly they did not even compare. My cousin, Dan, was young enough and at her side when she decided to bring this familial dish from her mother to us. I was seventeen, too old to be at my grandmother’s side learning an old tradition, unfortunately. Dan was there. When they found a banana tree, in Los Angeles, to trim leaves from, he was giggling, red-faced as they snuck up to the tree and cut the leaves off and ran back to the car. I would have been down in the backseat overcome with embarrassment, ignoring her as she egged me to help.
Dan is an accomplished Pastel maker. A Pastel is full of flavorful ingredients that take lots of time to cook and assemble. Assembly is key. There is a stack of foil, cut into squares. A stack of banana leaves, washed and steamed to make pliable. A pot full of a mixture of chicken and sometimes pork – the seasoning of which I am not completely sure, although, I know lots of garlic went in – that took hours to cook and get right. Golden raisins, capers in the meat mixture, also. There is a masa, spread first on the banana leaf, spread out. The meat mixture is then spread on the masa. Sliced hard-boiled eggs are lined up over the meat mixture and sprinkled with green olives. This is folded, tightly within the banana leaf and wrapped tightly in foil. Very tightly in foil. It is imperative the Pastel be steamed in a skillet of about an inch of water. There is no other way. These rectangular foil packages in the frig or freezer were something special, indeed.
Any time I taste a green olive or a caper, I literally expect there to be something else. For the meaty texture to be felt in my mouth mixed with the masa and the flavor of the banana leaf. These flavors have been engrained on my soul. And I am homesick today.