Things you likely haven't done before: cook for your loved ones who have passed. That is unless you're from south of the border because cooking for the deceased is precisely how Mexicans commemorate the holiday known as Day Of The Dead.
Celebrated each year from October 31 to November 2 and originally from Mexico, this holiday -- known as Día De Muertos in Spanish -- is a time to honor those who have passed away by displaying offrendas or offerings. During this perious, revelers decorate graves and build altars adorned with papel picado, candles, fake butterflies (believed to represent the spirits of the deceased), photos, cempasúchil (aka marigolds whose bright color is believed to help guide spirits on their journey), and a variety of food and drink.
Why Is Food Cooked During Day Of The Dead?
The reason for all that food and drink that you see on altars is that it's considered a way to tempt the deceased to come back to visit the realm of the living. The idea is that you cook your ancestors favorite foods and then put them on the altar so they can't help but want to return and enjoy said food.
Though many people cook plates of real food -- you'll see Day Of The Dead altars lined with plated of enchiladas, tamales, soup, or moles -- other people eschew the cooking and decorate the altars with mini sugar or ceramic sculptures shaped to resemble their loved one's favorite foods.
What To Eat During Day Of The Dead
Though the idea is to cook the favorite food of your ancestors, there are certain foods that are more closely associated with Day Of The Dead that others. And there is also regionality to the traditions so you may find Day Of The Dead recipes that are considered traditional in one area not served at all in another region.
Here are some of the more traditional Day Of The Dead foods and recipes that you'll find throughout Mexico -- some you likely know while others a little more obscure, but they're all very delicious.
One of the most common drinks you'll come across during Day Of The Dead is atole a sweet masa-based beverage with origins in the indigenous cultures of Mexico. Made by simmering a raw sugar known as piloncillo, with corn flour, milk, and spices (like vanilla and cinnamon), it's almost like a drinkable porridge. Though atole is most common in the fall -- from the period of Day Of The Dead through Christmas -- you can find it sold year round by street vendors who serve it with tamales for breakfast.
Calabaza En Tacha
A super traditional Mexican sweet, calabaza en tacha is simply pumpkin that has been candied with a mix of piloncillo and spices. At its simplest, calabaza en tacha is pumpkin glazed in sugar but there are all sorts of varieties made with addition of dried fruit and seeds. This is one of the classic things added to a Day Of The Dead altar that's said to help entice ancestors to make the journey to the realm of the living.
Calaveras De Azúcar
Translating to sugar skulls, these are in fact skulls shaped from sugar, which are elaborately decorated with icing and all sorts of sequins, paint, and jewels. These are not intended to be eaten but instead are put on the Day Of The Dead altars as decoration.
Like a chocolate-y cousin to atole, champurrado is a sweet chocolate-flavored drink made by cooking milk with chocolate, corn flour, and spices. During the Day Of The Dead celebrations, you don't often find champurrado on altars but rather it's sold by street vendors for friends and family to share as they sit in vigil in the cemeteries.
Brought to Mexico by the Spanish, churros are a sweet cylindrical pastry now found throughout Mexico. They are not traditional food during Day Of The Dead per se; however, they often are sold by vendors on the streets and they go fabulous with champurrado!
If there's one family recipe that's carefully guarded in the Mexican culture, it's the recipe for mole. As such you often find mole made during Day Of The Dead and showcased on graves since it is considered one of the most beloved family recipes in the Mexican culture.
Pan De Muerto
This brioche-like sweet bread -- which translates to "bread of the dead" -- is the most ubiquitous dish seen on altars during Day Of The Dead. Though you'll see pan de muerto throughout Mexico during the holiday, the recipe varies from region to region and family to family. The kind we've seen most frequently is a circular dough that's topped with a cross of bone-shaped dough and sugar like the one pictured above.
There are different styles of the classic hominy-and-pork stew known as pozole across Mexico but the chili-based red version known as pozole rojo seems to be the most common during the holiday.
What we call tortilla soup stateside, this brothy soup that gets garnished with all sorts of condiments -- tortilla chips, cheese, limes -- is eaten by many during Day Of The Dead.
Like pan de muerto and mole there are endless variations of tamales. And, because tamales are one of the most historic recipes in the Mexican culture, well they're just as common to see on Day Of The Dead altars as both pan de muerto and mole.
Need some more inspiration for Dia De Muertos? Try your hand at a few of the festive recipes, florals, and decor we created for our Day Of The Dead party! Or come join us in Mexico for Day Of The Dead!
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