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.
When is 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 and often referred to in the United States as Dia de Los Muertos–is a time to honor those who have passed away by displaying ofrendas or offerings.
How is it celebrated?
During this period, there are a host of Día de Los Muertos celebrations, some organized and open to the public and others intimate among families.
In parts of Mexico like Oaxaca, you’ll see calendas or parades to commemorate the season. Throughout the country, people visit cemeteries to be with those who have passed. And you’ll also find that many dinners or small gatherings occur at people’s homes.
In general, revelers decorate graves with papel picado, candles, fake butterflies (believed to represent the spirits of the deceased), photos, and cempasúchil (aka marigolds) and amaranth.
What is on the altar?
Along with the graves, altars (aka altares or ofrendas) are built and displayed on the 1st and 2nd of November. Some people save money throughout the year and put thousands of dollars toward building elaborate altars.
There are a few symbolic elements to the altar, such as:
- Photographs: Of those who’ve passed to memorialize them
- Candles: To represent the spirits of the dead who you are commemorating
- Drinks: Aguas Frescas, atole, pulque, tequila, or beer is said to satisfy the thirst of the dead
- Foods: As listed below, this could be seasonal specialties like pan de Muerto or calabaza en tacha or traditional Mexican foods that the deceased liked
- Sugar Skulls: Traditionally, these have the name of the dead on the forehead
- Incense or Resin: The smell of the copal guides the spirits to the altar
- Flowers: The cempasúchil or marigold is used because the orange color represents death.
What food is made for the Day of the Dead in Mexico?
The reason for all that food and drink 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.
If you head to a cemetery or are invited to build an altar, you’ll find that many people cook plates of real food with Day Of The Dead altars lined with plated enchiladas, tamales, soup, or moles. Others people eschew the cooking and decorate the altars with mini sugar or ceramic sculptures shaped to resemble their loved one’s favorite foods and ingredients.
What To Eat During Day Of The Dead
Though the idea is to cook the favorite food of your ancestors, certain foods are more closely associated with the Day Of The Dead than others.
There is regionality to the traditions, so you may find Day Of The Dead recipes that are considered traditional in one area and not served in another region.
There are some areas of Mexico where Day of the Dead celebrations are more commonplace, including in Michoacan, Oaxaca, and Jalisco. On many an altar, you’ll often find classic dishes from those regions—like carnitas, mole negro, or birria, respectively.
Here are some of the more traditional Day Of The Dead foods and recipes that you’ll find throughout Mexico — some you likely know because they’re essential to Mexican cuisine. In contrast, others are a little more obscure, but they’re all very delicious.
One of the most common traditional Mexican 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 cornflour, milk, and spices (like vanilla and cinnamon), it’s almost like a drinkable porridge. Though atole is most common in the fall–from 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 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 dried fruit and seeds like amaranth and pumpkin 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 skulls shaped from sugar, 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, cornflour, 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 sometimes called Day of the Dead bread because it’s 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 flavored with anise and orange juice or orange blossom water and is decorated 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 historical 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.
How To Celebrate Day Of The Dead
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 travel with us to Mexico for the Day Of The Dead!
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