Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, began over 2,500 years ago as a month-long festival honoring the Lady of the Dead Goddess Mictecacihuatl. When the Spaniards arrived in Mesoamerica, they brought Catholicism with them, and their All Saint’s Day holiday, which transformed the Goddess’ festival into the two-day celebration we know today as Dia de los Muertos.
The ancient holiday is a time for families to celebrate the lives of their beloved departed family members. Families create elaborate Ofrendas, or alters with offerings, decorated with marigold flowers, colorful banners called papel picado, photos of the departed, and their favorite foods and drinks. The altar and offerings are believed to encourage the spirits of their deceased loved ones to visit them and join the celebration. It is a deeply meaningful holiday and a joyous celebration of family, love, life, and death.
The holiday includes quite a few wonderful ancient food traditions, such as (but not limited to):
- Calavera, or sugar skulls, represent the sweetness of life and were originally offerings to the god of the underworld. They are created from a paste of granulated sugar, molded to resemble a skull, and elaborately decorated with brightly-colored icing.
- Pan de Muerto, or bread of the dead, a yeasted sweet bread typically flavored with orange, anise, or cinnamon. After baking, they are usually dusted with granulated sugar or sesame seeds.
- Calabaza en tacha, or candied pumpkin, is created with fresh pumpkin chunks that are slow-cooked in either piloncillo cane sugar or brown sugar, orange zest, and cinnamon. It is often served with ice cream.
- Mole negro is a complex and rich sauce that is typically served over chicken or turkey with a side of warm tortillas. It is made from charred chilies, chili seeds, plantain, peanuts, almonds, raisins, Mexican cinnamon, and bitter chocolate.
- Mucbipollo, or Pib, is similar to a very large tamale. They are made with corn flour dough, tomatoes, bell pepper, onion, epazote herb, lard, and other ingredients, then wrapped in a banana leaf and buried in the ground to cook.
- Tamales, a corn flour (masa) based treat, can be served either savory or sweet. Savory fillings include chicken, pork, roasted chilis, or cheese, while sweet fillings are usually fruit (such as raisins, strawberries, or pineapple). The filled masa is then wrapped in either a cornhusk or a banana leaf and steamed.
- Mexican hot chocolate dates back thousands of years to when the Mayans cultivated cacao and consumed it as a hot and bitter fermented drink. Today, it is typically served sweet and flavored with cinnamon and chili spices.
- Atole and champurrado are other hot spiced drinks you will find during Dia de los Muertos. Atole is a cornmeal drink flavored with fruits and nuts. Adding chocolate to atole creates champurrado.
- Alcohol is also left on ofrendas, typically a bottle of tequila, mescal, beer, or pulque (a milky-colored beverage made from the fermented sap of the maguey plant). The choice of alcohol offered depends heavily on what the deceased would have preferred in life.
The holiday today truly showcases many of Mexico’s unique traditional foods and drinks; this list barely scratches the surface of their ancient cultural food traditions that are still practiced today. Even though the holiday theme appears rather spooky to some, Dia de los Muertos is all about family and celebrating life.
Have you had any of these traditional dishes? What did you think?
Let us know in the comments!