According to the ethnocultural research of Dr Cruz Miguel Ortiz Cuadra, the Africans brought the technology for cooking tuberous root vegetables and the use of banana leaves for wrapping. This facilitates boiling the grated banana, yautia, and yuca mixture. Until their arrival, the taíno indians had been processing yuca without heat. This is known as cassava.
The prep consists of emptying your fridge and your freezer of everything so you can store the pasteles. Make lots of sofrito in advance. Get yourself some delantales and gloves, since banana sap and annatto oil leave permanent stains. Gather or borrow the biggest ollas you can find.
Shopping list for about a hundred + pasteles: 20 green bananas, 2 green plantains, 5 lbs of yuca, 5 lbs of yautia (Mexicans call it white malanga), 5 bundles of banana leaves from the freezer section, 3 lbs of pork shoulder, 4 chicken breasts, one 8 oz bag of whole annato seed, two red pimientos, one can of condensed milk, three rolls of paper for pasteles, one tall jar of small pitted olives, two cans of garbanzos, and one can of raisins (optional). Don't forget the sofrito ingredients and the string used to tie the yuntas. You will spend about $120 on these ingredients.
Pastel is the singular, pasteles is the plural, pronounced pas-TEH-less. Never describe them at "Puerto Rican tamales," because our pasteles had their own evolution, entirely separate from that of the Mexican tamales. Let's help Epicurious and the Food Network keep their facts straight.
There is a variety of Puerto Rican pasteles out there and they all taste slightly different. Yuca-only pasteles are softer and orange-colored. Some people say they absorb the meat flavors better. They fall apart more easily when hot. Green banana pasteles are brown-colored, firmer and retain their shape. Then there are pasteles that combine yautia, yuca, plantain and green banana in various proportions according to the taste of those who make them. It is believed that plantain-only pasteles are too hard and that yautia-only pasteles would be too soft.
From the Taino Indians, according to the same professor, we inherited the use of yuca, and annatto, both native ingredients. Achiote in particular, was used as both a coloring and flavoring element. In pasteles, it is used to flavor the meat and the masa, and in the oil placed on the banana leaf to keep the masa from sticking. This use can be seen through the Caribbean and Central America. Today, annatto seed is used to naturally color many foods. Cheddar cheese is one example.
From the Spaniards we got the relleno tradition of making small dumpling-like dishes. For the mostly-christian Spanish immigrants navidad was a special ocassion. The labor-intensive dishes were saved for this time of the year. They brought with them their experience working with pork and their knowledge of olives, capers and peppers as seasonings. This is the research of Dr. Ortiz Cuadra of the University of Puerto Rico.
How to buy pasteles? The going rate is two dollars each. Buy them from somebody who does it as a business. The Latino market is a good place to ask. If you're desperate, don't offer money to a Puerto Rican co-worker or friend to "make you some like the ones we had at your house last year." It is not a money issue. Your friend is probably tired of such offers since many people want to eat pasteles but few are willing to do the work. Offering to pitch in to do the actual shopping or wrapping might be the ticket, along with sharing the cost.