Make These Traditional Day of the Dead Foods to Kick Off Your Celebrations

Grant Rindner
·8 mins read
Photo credit: NurPhoto - Getty Images
Photo credit: NurPhoto - Getty Images

From Oprah Magazine

  • The Mexican holiday Day of the Dead (or Día de los Muertos) celebrates the passing of close family and friends, and the return of the departed to Earth.

  • The living make altars commemorating the deceased, and fill them with things that they enjoyed in life—food being one of the key components.

  • Dishes that are Day of the Dead staples include traditional bread (pan de muerto), sugar skulls, corn or grasshopper tamales, pozole, and many more.

Mexicos's Day of the Dead or Día de los Muertos is an ebullient holiday, occurring from October 31 to November 2, that honors the lives of loved ones who have passed.

One of the most sacred customs of the holiday is the preparation of altars that serve as a tribute to the deceased. They're decorated with things that the person loved during their life, and food is a crucial component of the altars specifically and of Day of the Dead as a whole.

"During this time, people adorn these special altars—known as ofrendas—with cempasúchil (marigold) flowers, burning copal (incense), fresh pan de muerto (bread of the dead), fruits, candles, sugar or chocolate skulls, photographs and mementos of the departed," says Juan Aguirre, Executive Director of the Mexican culture non-profit Mano a Mano. "The food varies depending on the region."

The holiday showcases the breadth of Mexican cuisine, with a mix of savory dishes, sweet treats, and strong spice depending on where in the country you're celebrating. Many of these traditional Day of the Dead foods are also made by Mexican communities in places like Los Angeles.

"This tradition is rooted in the native Mexican belief that life on earth is a preparation for the next world and of the importance of maintaining a strong relationship with the dead," Aguirre says.

"It’s not funereal, it’s not morbid, it’s not about being spooky. It’s about joy and color and flavor and celebration, all the mixed emotions," James Beard Award-winning chef Pati Jinich tells OprahMag.com. "It’s a very Mexican thing to have extreme sadness with extreme joy at the same time."

Whether you're trying to plan your own authentic Day of the Dead celebration or simply hoping to learn more about this sacred Mexican holiday, read on to explore the traditional dishes and culinary customs that bring Día de los Muertos to life.

Pan de Muerto

Photo credit: Pedro Martin Gonzalez Castillo - Getty Images
Photo credit: Pedro Martin Gonzalez Castillo - Getty Images

The most universal Day of the Dead item is the Pan de Muerto (or Bread of the Dead). Jinich explains that it's found all over the country, and that in recent years its popularity has led to it being more readily available throughout the fall. This "spongey, yeast-based egg bread" is now available with Nutella and whipped cream, though Jinich's preferred recipe incorporates orange blossom water.

"You used to be able to only get it a week before Day of the Dead and then during the three days of celebration," says Jinich, whose show Pati's Mexican Table airs this fall. "But people love it so much that in the last five or six years you can find it from the end of August through September and October."

Pan de Muerto is both made in the home and at bakeries around the country, with every baker approaching it in their own way. As you'll see, many of the holiday meals vary greatly by region, but this is one of the truly unifying Day of the Dead dishes.

"I would say that one thing that is never missing is that bread," Jinich says.

Calabaza en Tacha

Photo credit: Lazartivan - Getty Images
Photo credit: Lazartivan - Getty Images

Candied pumpkin is a Day of the Dead dish primarily associated with the Yucatan Peninsula, but it's popular around the country. Just like the holiday itself, calabaza en tacha has pre-Hispanic, Mayan roots.

Not dissimilar from American candied yams, calabaza en tacha is made from pumpkin chunks, cinnamon, piloncillo cane sugar, and/or brown sugar. It's often served with ice cream or cream, and unlike candied yams, is primarily a dessert dish.

Calavares

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Originally an offering to the god of the underworld during Mesoamerican times, calavares (or sugar skulls) have been a Mexican staple for centuries. They're molded from a sugar paste and, like pan de muerto, are carved into unique shapes and adorned with bold colors.

The shades are vibrant to fit with the joyous nature of the holiday, but they are not chosen frivolously. The red stands for blood, purple for pain, and yellow for marigolds or nature, orange for the sun. Sometimes, the name of the deceased is even carved on the skull itself and placed on their tribute altar.

The word calavares also has another meaning in the Day of the Dead context. It's the name of a kind of satirical poem that can either be about the dead or the living, but spares neither from biting sarcasm.

Tamales

Photo credit: NurPhoto - Getty Images
Photo credit: NurPhoto - Getty Images

Made by placing a variety of different fillings inside of a corn husk and steaming it, tamales are a ubiquitous Mexican dish, but the specifics can vary greatly by location. Aguirre notes that in Michoacán, people eat uchepos (corn tamales) and corundas (triangular tamales). In the southern state of Chiapas, tamales are filled with grasshoppers, which are used in myriad ways in Mexican cooking.

Jinich says that growing up in Mexico City, she primarily ate chicken and salsa verde tamales around the holiday.

Along with the corn drink atole (which we'll touch on shortly), tamales are regularly eaten during the long nights that come during Día de los Muertos celebrations.

Mole

Photo credit: Tony Hutchings - Getty Images
Photo credit: Tony Hutchings - Getty Images

This dark, deeply flavored sauce is another Mexican staple, but it originates in the state of Oaxaca, which is known as "Land of seven moles." Specifically, mole negro is the kind that's made around the holiday. Its intense flavor comes from burning and blackening the chiles and their seeds.

Like any holiday dish, every family has its own unique mole recipe, and it's incorporated differently into every Day of the Dead celebration.

Pozole

Photo credit: The Washington Post - Getty Images
Photo credit: The Washington Post - Getty Images

This savory stew mixes hominy and meat (frequently pork), and is seasoned with garlic, cumin, diced green or red chili peppers, and various other spices. Though it's eaten around the country, its popularity around Day of the Dead is tied to a specific location.

"If you're in Mexico City, you’ll find pozole," says Jinich.

Commonly, the kind eaten on Day of the Dead is the extra spicy variety, with an abundance of red chiles to give it additional heat.

Atole

Photo credit: Marcos Elihu Castillo Ramirez - Getty Images
Photo credit: Marcos Elihu Castillo Ramirez - Getty Images

This non-alcoholic drink is commonly used for dunking pan de muertos. It's made from masa harina corn flour, and has roots dating back to the Aztecs.

It's technically a porridge, but it's consumed as a beverage, and is popular after dinner or with breakfast, especially during Day of the Dead.

And since it is sweetened with cinnamon, brown sugar, and sometimes chocolate to make it champurrado, it's a perfect beverage for the winter months ahead.

After a long day of eating and celebrating the beauty of life and the poignancy of death, a warm cup of atole is an ideal nightcap.

Hot Chocolate

Photo credit: ©fitopardo - Getty Images
Photo credit: ©fitopardo - Getty Images

You'll never go back to the traditional way once you've had a Mexican hot chocolate—it's the creamier, spicier relative of the warming winter beverage we have in the U.S. Made with spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and cayenne pepper, it has a unique kick, and is less overtly sweet.

One of the keys to making it is cooking it low and slow, allowing the ingredients to really mix. It's a favorite to accompany pan de muerto, and makes a great drink for dunking.

Caramel Flan

Photo credit: John Block - Getty Images
Photo credit: John Block - Getty Images

Flan has been in Central and Latin America for over 500 years, and it's one of the most popular desserts in Mexico both year-round and especially during the holiday. The simple, straightforward recipe makes it a favorite of both home cooks and comida corrida restaurants, which serve quick, simple meals.

The eggy custard is prepared and then doused in a generous helping of caramel. If you're at a big Day of the Dead celebration, odds are you can find a local street vendor selling flan.

Tortilla Soup

Photo credit: Lew Robertson - Getty Images
Photo credit: Lew Robertson - Getty Images

This spicy soup, known locally as Sopa Azteca, is perfect for staying warm as the weather turns. There are infinite variations on it, but its flavor usually comes from a combination of tomatoes, tomatillos, chipotle and chile peppers, cumin, and cilantro. The tortilla strips sprinkled on top provide a crunchy textural contrast to the rich, smooth soup.

It is often made with meat, specifically chicken, but can easily be made vegetarian.

Pulque

Photo credit: Ari Beser - Getty Images
Photo credit: Ari Beser - Getty Images

This classic beverage is made from agave, so it's related to tequila, but has a flavor profile all its own. This staple of Day of the Dead rituals is a little harsh but can be mixed with fruit for a more pleasant experience.

As the drink has grown in popularity, pulquerías have popped up in Mexico City—trendy bars that specialize in the beverage. But pulque has retained its historical significance even as it has gone mainstream. Pulque is sometimes called "The nectar of the Gods," because it is said to be the blood of Aztec god Mayahuel.

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