The Mexican celebration of Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) falls between 31 October and 2 November every year. During this time, people gather together to remember their loved ones who have passed away and honour them with offerings of food, flowers, and sugar skull candies. Despite having a focus on the dead, the festival is not about mourning – rather it is a celebration of life on earth and a tribute to those who are deceased.
The Day of the Dead celebration is rooted in the native Mexican belief that life on earth simply exists as a preparation for the afterlife. It is considered to be extremely important to maintain a strong relationship with those who have passed. The event is not scary or depressing – it has an equal focus on sadness and joy. One of the most sacred traditions during Day of the Dead is creating altars to commemorate friends and family who have passed away. These altars, known as ofrendas, are adorned with marigold flowers, burning incense, fresh bread, fruits, candles, sugar skulls, photos of the departed, and mementos that they enjoyed.
As part of the celebrations, people prepare plenty of food as they would for a party or big event. The food that’s eaten during the Day of the Dead depends on the region in Mexico, although there are some staples that are enjoyed all over the country. If you’d like to commemorate your deceased loved ones with a Day of the Dead celebration, here are some traditional foods that you can enjoy.
Pan de muerto
Literally translated to ‘bread of the dead’, pan de muerto is the most widespread food eaten on Day of the Dead. It is served all over the country, either home-baked or brought from local bakeries. Every household and bakery will have their own take on pan de muerto, but the base is a spongy, yeasted bread. Some people serve pan de muerto with Nutella, whipped cream, or orange blossom water for added flavour.
These infamous sugar skulls are synonymous with the Day of the Dead celebration. The skulls are moulded from a paste made from sugar and painted with bright, vibrant colours. Every colour used has its own special meaning in unison with Day of the Dead: red is used as a symbol for blood, yellow as a reference to marigolds & nature, purple is to signify pain, and orange is used to depict the sun. Traditionally, calaveras were given as an offering to the god of the underworld, and they have been a staple of Day of the Dead for hundreds of years. Some people carve the names of their deceased loved ones on the skulls. They’re typically placed on the altars as an offering.
Tamales are served all over Mexico, with each region having its own particular way of cooking and preparing them. The basis of tamales is stuffing ingredients into a corn husk which is then steamed. Every region will use different stuffings: in Michoacan, corn tamales (uchepos) and triangular tamales (corundas) are popular. In the southern state of Chiapas, tamales are stuffed with grasshoppers. Tamales stuffed with chicken and salsa verde are most popular in Mexico City.
This is a type of tortilla soup with numerous incarnations that use different ingredients. A typical sopa azteca is flavoured with tomatoes, tomatillos, chipotle, chilli peppers, cumin, and coriander leaves. Crispy tortillas are broken and sprinkled over the top of the soup to give it an extra crunch. The soup has a rich and smooth texture and usually includes meat, especially chicken.
This is a rich, dark sauce that is originally from Oaxaca but is served all over Mexico. There are many different types of mole, including yellow, red, green, almond, and more. The basic formula for mole includes a fruit, nut, chili pepper, and spices. The most popular type of mole during Day of the Dead is black mole or mole negro, which is made by charring and burning chillies and their seeds.
Calabaza en tacha
This is a type of candied pumpkin dish that is mainly found along the Yucatan Peninsula. Calabaza en tacha is one of the most traditional foods served during Day of the Dead. It has its roots in pre-colonial Mayan cooking. The dish is made by chopping pumpkin into large cubes and flavouring it with cinnamon, cane sugar, and brown sugar. The final calabaza en tacha is often served with cream or ice cream. As you may have guessed, this pumpkin dish is served as a dessert and not a savoury dish.
Also known as caramel flan, this dessert has been enjoyed in Mexico for more than 500 years. It is popular all year round, but is a special part of Day of the Dead. Creme Caramel is made from an egg-based custard that’s drowned in a deliciously sweet and sticky caramel. People will make it at home or buy it from comida corrida restaurants and street vendors at Day of the Dead celebrations.
Jamoncillo de leche
This is a Mexican fudge made from either cow or goat milk. It is typically flavoured with cinnamon, crushed pecans, or vanilla. Sometimes people will dye jamoncillo de leche in bright colours, like sugar skulls, making it decorative as well as extremely yummy.
This Mexican stew is made with hominy (ground corn) and meat that’s flavoured with cumin, garlic, and chillies. Pozole is enjoyed all over Mexico throughout the year, but during Day of the Dead it is especially popular in Mexico City. For the celebration, pozole is made extra spicy with lots of red chillies.
Marigolds are extremely popular during Day of the Dead. They are used to decorate the shrines, thought to be able to direct spirits to their altars through their scent. They are also dried and infused with tequila, turning the alcohol into a deep golden colour. Marigold tequila can be flavoured with cinnamon, the ubiquitous spice of Mexico. During Day of the Dead people either drink marigold tequila on its own or as part of a cocktail.
This traditional corn-based Mexican drink has its roots in Aztec history. While technically considered a porridge, it is consumed as a beverage. The base is masa harina (maize) flour which is sweetened with cinnamon and brown sugar. Sometimes chocolate is added (in which case it’s called champurrado). During Day of the Dead, atole is used to dunk pan de muerto. It is most popularly consumed as a nightcap, after a day of eating and celebrating the joy of life and sadness of death. During Day of the Dead, it is also commonly drank with breakfast.
This is one of Mexico’s most popular beverages, though it has its origins in North Africa and was brought to the region by the Spanish. Horchata is made from rice which has been soaked with cinnamon and then drained to retain only the milk. It is then flavoured with sugar, vanilla, and other ingredients. Horchata is served cold and sometimes with a splash of rum or whisky for an extra kick.
Mexican hot chocolate is much creamier and spicier than the hot chocolate that’s popular in Australia. It is less sweet, flavoured with cinnamon, nutmeg, and cayenne pepper to give it a bit of a kick. The hot chocolate is usually cooked slowly on a low heat. This allows the ingredients to combine well and the milk to thicken to a creamy consistency. It is another popular accompaniment to pan de muerto.
Celebrate Day of the Dead with us
Celebrating Day of the Dead is a truly unique and joyous event. It’s not often that we honour and commemorate our deceased loved ones in a way that is simultaneously positive and moving. If you’d like to partake in a Day of the Dead celebration, let us make the occasion even more special by catering traditional Mexican Day of the Dead foods. We can create a Mexican feast full of all the traditional favourites or curate a special menu that’s catered to your tastes and likings.
Get in touch with our team to discuss how we can make your Day of the Dead celebration a special one. Beyond just catering mouth-watering traditional foods, we can also help you with setting up authentic decorations, sourcing a venue, and other aspects of event planning. Let’s start planning now!