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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, May 18, 2002

Maui woman realizes dream in savory pastele

By Rod Ohira
Advertiser Staff Writer

Seated at a table facing a partially open door that lets in enough of a breeze to keep her cool, Elizabeth Ross works on crossword puzzles while overseeing what's going on in the kitchen.

Elizabeth Naomi "Noma" Camara-Pegden, prepares pastele — similar to laulau — for the busy lunch hour at The Pastele Shop on North School Street. The diner, which Camara-Pegden's mother opened in 1984, sells about 1,500 pastele a week.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

The 84-year-old Maui native from Hamakua Poko — between Pa'ia and Ha'iku — realized her dream in 1984 with the opening of The Pastele Shop at 2101 N. School St. after selling homemade pastele door-to-door for nearly five decades.

Ross is of Hawaiian-Chinese-Portuguese ancestry but learned to make the labor-intensive Puerto Rican delicacy by watching the family of her uncle William Ah Sam's wife — the former Juanita "Jennie" Rodrigues — prepare it for special occasions at Hamakua Poko's Puerto Rican plantation camp.

Today, Ross' family business sells 1,500 pastele over a seven-day work week at their small diner. At two recent Blaisdell Center events, they sold 9,000 pastele on consecutive weekends.

Angel Cancel, a Puerto Rico native and Kalihi resident, calls the pastele as good as "home cooking."

"I've been coming here about once a week since it opened. This is the only place I know where you can get Puerto Rican food and I've recommended it to a lot of other Puerto Ricans," Cancel said.

"Pastele is hard to make and you can tell they make it here with love."

Pastele is a Hawaiian laulaulike dish, traditionally made with pork and green bananas. It usually is wrapped in banana leaf but Ross uses ti leaf. The key is the seasoning, which Ross developed over the years. Her secret recipe includes some local ingredients.

Ross was raised by her maternal grandmother, the late Victoria Hookano Ah Sam, who had 17 children. She quit school after eighth grade to work at the pineapple cannery and was married at age 17. Ross had moved to O'ahu and was living in Kalihi when she got the idea to sell pastele in the early 1940s.

"They were selling pastele three for a dollar in front of Ayala's (a former bar on North School Street at the current site of the United Puerto Rican Association of Hawai'i)," Ross recalled. "I decided to make my own to sell. It was hard work, from morning to evening, and I sold 30, 40 every weekend."

Ross and her second husband, the father of her three daughters — Elizabeth Naomi "Noma" Camara-Pegden, Becky Daniels and Vicky Bretthauer — were living in Wahiawa when she expanded her home business.

"I was born when she was 29 and as a young child, I remember watching her grate bananas," Camara-Pegden said. "In Wahiawa, she grew her own bananas. She would go door to door selling pastele."

Years later, Camara-Pegden would help her mother realize a dream.

A regular customer at Tasty Chop Suey, Camara-Pegden learned there that the space where a Korean barbecue diner had been located across the street was available. In September 1984, Ross opened The Pastele Shop. Last year, the shop was expanded to include four tables and a front counter.

"It was her dream to sell pastele from a shop," Camara-Pegden said. "My fear was we wouldn't be able to peel enough green bananas. A couple of months after we opened, a lady who I haven't seen since came in and asked how we peeled bananas. She taught us how to do it."

The preparation work that goes into making pastele is "labor intensive and time-consuming," noted Becky Daniels. "There's a lot of detail besides peeling and grating bananas and cooking the meat beforehand," she added.

Since he retired as a lineman surveyor, Ross' husband, Sonny, has been doing the cooking for his wife of 30 years. "He told a friend he never worked so hard in his life until doing this," Camara-Pegden said.

The family uses 250 pounds of pork per week. One day a week is devoted to preparation work for 1,500 pastele, and Ross is an active participant. Ingredients are stored in a freezer and every pastele ordered is made fresh.

"When she cooks, she prays for Jesus' blessing for the food in every pot — that it will be good and people will like it," Camara-Pegden said of her mother.

Ross has another goal. "I want to get into wholesale," she said.

Including Daniels' daughter, 32-year-old Lisa Hayes, the business employs three generations of the family.

"I never thought that pastele would be this good to me," Ross said. "I give thanks to God."

Reach Rod Ohira at 535-8181 or rohira@honoluluadvertiser.com.