It didn’t take me long to come to the realisation that Mexico is a land of great paradoxes. A place, where life is more often than not, happily seen through the prism of death. And vice versa. I saw altars to the scythe-brandishing skeletal figure of Santa Muerte (Saint Death)—always garbed in a white sequined wedding gown—at almost every street corner across the capital Mexico City.
But there are no greater days than today and tomorrow, the first and second days of November when this vision becomes crystal clear. Although known multifariously as All Souls’ Day or as The Day of The Dead to us Catholics around the world, Mexico, like with everything else, has a more mellifluous sounding name for it: Día de Muertos.
Again, I was lucky to be caught in the midst of this frenzy a few years ago as I travelled across the central American country. A mid-autumn trip that gave me a whole new perspective on an inevitable fact of life we all fear, death.
A fusion of the aforementioned Catholic feast of All Souls’ Day (November 2) with the day of the dead of the pre-Hispanic Tarasco people of Michoacán, it is believed that the dead return to their earthly homes for one day—between the night of the 1st and the morning of the 2nd of November. Two days before the festival, Mexicans visit the graves of deceased family members, and adorn them with brightly coloured, mainly blood red, paper decorations and marigold flowers known locally as cempasúchil. The brightness of which, they believe, evokes the sun.
Small gifts called ofrendas in the form of glittery, 3-D sugar skulls and mini skull-shaped cookies called alegrias made of amaranth, raisins, assorted nuts, and honey, and dancing sugared skeletons called calaveras (originally an offering to the God of the Underworld during Mesoamerican times) are left behind at the graves by the relatives. This, after they spend at least 24 hours in the cemetery, communing with the dead in a sort of hybrid tailgate party-meets-family picnic. Highlighted by plenty of drinking, playing of music and of course, eating.
Now, while usually most of the dishes brought to the graves are the ones considered the deceased’s favourites, there are a few traditional items, too.
Named in honour of the dead—and made only for this one day of the year—is pan de muerto (bread of the dead). This one is a bun-shaped sweet egg and yeast bread roll that is sprinkled with pearl sugar and adorned with bone-shaped cut-out pieces of the same dough. Other dishes like my favourite hominy, pork and cilantro stew called pozole, the chocolate- and chile-enhanced mole Poblano and other savoury ones like the meat filled, steamed masa (corn dough) tamales are also widely made and served on this day.
Travelling down the Yucatán Peninsula, I learnt that there are also a few very interesting regional specialties that take center stage on Día de Muertos. Here, the chicken dish of mukbil pollo is traditionally prepared a day earlier on October 31. Similar to a big masa tamale, this one is filled with pork, chicken, tomato, garlic, peppers, onions, and local Mexican herbs and spices like epazote and achiote. Just before it is wrapped in banana leaves and steamed in an underground oven, it is slathered in a sauce called kool that is made with meat broth, habanero chili, and a slurry made with masa.
Still in the Yucatán and just like the North American penchant for all things pumpkin on Halloween a day earlier on October 31, here too the vegetable find a firm footing for itself. In the form of candied pumpkin chunks called calabaza en tacha that are cooked with cinnamon, piloncillo cane sugar, and served with a blob of ice cream or fresh cream as dessert.
In Mexico, it would be almost impossible to have a feast and not include alcoholic beverages. In addition to food, drinks are also important to the tradition of this day. While today, families will commonly drink the favourite beverage of their deceased loved ones be it a chilled cerveza (beer), tequila or mezcal, there is one traditional drink that supersedes all.
I’m talking about the much-loved pulque. Made from agave and similar to tequila, pulque has no distinct flavour profile of its own. But when mixed with a fruit juice, it transforms into a yum cocktail. It is a staple of Día de Muertos rituals for one major reason. For, pulque is referred to as “The Nectar of The Gods”. As it is said to be the blood of the Aztec God Mayahuel.
Among the non-alcoholic drinks, the corn-based atole made from masa harina (cornflour) also has roots dating back to the Aztecs. With its thick, almost porridge-esque consistency, atole is commonly used for dunking morsels of pan de muerto into. When mixed with a bit of chocolate, it morphs into another drink called champurrado.
Among the fruit and flower based drinks, the almond-rice-cinnamon drink of horchata is another widely consumed beverage. As is agua de jamaica, a refreshing iced drink made from the red hued flowers and leaves of the Jamaican hibiscus plant; mirroring perfectly that blood red leitmotif of the day.
Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer.