It goes without saying that the popularity of Latin American cuisine and spirits are undeniably growing in this part of the world. The growing popularity of Mezcal, a smoky artisanal alcohol made from a type of agave, the presence of ingredients such as quinoa, chia seeds and avocado on the menus of trendy neighborhood cafés, cevicherias and taquerias opening up as well as many restaurants featuring a variation of some Latin street food in one way or another. The Latino culture here in Singapore is growing and we host some of the best film festivals showcasing artistic works from Argentina, Peru and Mexico. Walk around the city and we have a scattering of sculptures from my favourite Colombian artist, Botero, and Latin music is alive and well in late night bars and even a food stall in Tekka market (great place to get Mexican chillies by the way).
Not only are we reminded more and more about the food of Latin America but also about the region’s vibrant culture. Popular films and documentaries showcase Latin culture and cuisines which can be seen in Pixar’s Coco, Netflix’ Narcos and also Chefs Table, just to name a few. As November is now upon us, we are bombarded with the last remains of Halloween and the beginnings of a festival, the biggest festival that takes place in Mexico, the country that was my home once upon a time
Dia de los Muertos (“Day of the dead”), is the most important celebration of the entire year in Mexico – it surpasses any importance Christmas has in most countries and pales in comparison to Easter celebrations but I guess it could be on par with how the Chinese celebrate their New Year, just to give you a gauge of its extreme significance in Mexican culture.
Dia de los Muertos is a beautiful time to celebrate, to be happy, contemplate and accept the meaning of life and understand that despite the winding roads and alternate paths we take, life eventually leads to death. As morbid as this seems, it is a time for family and friends to come together and celebrate the life of loved ones that have passed, to eat some amazing food, laugh, sing and dance – preferably to a 5 piece mariachi band, however spotify and a good speaker will suffice.
The tradition of this important celebration dates back over 3,000 years in the time of the Aztecs and the Mayans. Despite the the arrival of the Spanish in the Americas in the 16th Century, it is a celebration that holds true to its roots with a definite influence of Catholicism. The festivities for celebrating began on the 9th month of the Aztec calender, which was summertime and the beginning of August. When the Spanish conquered the Americas and brought their Catholic traditions, the day of the dead essence remained and eventually coincided with Autumn harvest, All Saints day and All Souls day. The young souls are remembered on the 1st November while all other souls on the 2nd.
I remember the weeks leading up to the day of the dead when I lived in Mexico City, District Federal, or if you REALLY live there “De Effe”. The streets and markets would be bustling with preparations for these two special days, food markets would be teeming with sugar skulls and candles and the colour of golden marigolds would be scattered at flower stalls throughout the city. Any bakery you would walk into would have many variations of pan de muerto, the festival’s official food symbol and mariachi bands would be warming up for the countless bookings they would have in the coming weeks. It is never hard to find a skeleton or two sitting at a café, perched outside a shop or displayed in some way to accentuate the yearly tradition. Costumes are also a big part of the Dia de Muertos celebrations and due to the fact that the days roll over from Halloween – there are some amazing outfits that individuals spend a few months to prepare just for that day.
There are many symbols that are used during the celebration and they all individually have a strong significance that help tie the living and the dead in one way or another. Cempasuchil, the Mexican Marigold, is sacred to the Aztec God of the Dead, Mictlāntēcutli. Mictlāntēcutli and his wife Mictecacihuatl look over Mictlan, the underworld which is the city of the dead where the souls live. The symbolic golden flowers, as well as copal or incense help guide the souls home on the two special days in November.
Papel Picado (cut out coloured paper), represents wind and the fragility of life. Symbols and scenes are cut out from these light weight coloured papers and are used to decorate alters, restaurants and streets.
Calacas (skeletons) are found all around the towns and cities. They are placed in such a way so they look like they are enjoying themselves, having fun and celebrating life (even though they are skeletons)! Calaveras de alfenique are sugar skulls beautifully decorated with bright colours, representing life and death. Skulls are also made out of chocolate and amaranth, a common grain that was used before the introduction of sugar in the Americas.
The most iconic calavera during Dia de los Muertos is La Calavera Catarina. The image of Catarina was first drawn by illustrator José Guadalupe Posada depicting the indigenous woman in the early 20th Century aspiring to be more European by wearing French style clothing and painting her face white. La Calavera Catarina mocks anyone that takes life and materialism too seriously. It was a symbol that was just a skull until artist Diego Rivera gave her a body in his mural Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central (Dream of a Sunday afternoon along Central Alameda) which brought the entire character to life.
Another beautiful symbol of this time of the year is the orange and black Monarch butterfly. It represents the souls who are not dead but still exist in the underworld of Mictlan. They migrate every year in November from the frosty Southern Canadian Autumn to Mexico in their thousands.
Offrendas or altars are displays for the dead when their souls come to visit. They are decorated with flowers, photographs, sugar skulls, candles to provide light to guide the souls, incense and also food. Food is cooked with love and care and placed at grave sites for souls to ‘absorb its essence’, it is then eaten by the living and possibly washed down with some pulque (fermented drink made from the sap of maguey plant), hot chocolate, atole or champurrado (thick chocolate and corn drinks).
Despite these important symbols for Dia de los Muertos, food is what brings everyone together – they cook together and eat together at the grave sites while listening to happy music. The common foods that are made, cooked and eaten during this this time are;
Tamales; an ancient food made from cornmeal and a variety of fillings that are then wrapped in corn husks and steamed. In the Yucatan Peninsula, a similar dish to this is called Muchipollo which is made of cornmeal and chicken, wrapped in a banana leaf and then cooked in the ground.
Calabaza en Dulce is pumpkin cooked in piloncillo sugar and cinnamon so it becomes candied and preserved.
Mole negro is also an important dish for this celebration, made with chicken or pork - this traditional dish is a laborious symbol of love using many ingredients. Read more about it here.
Then there is pan de muerto, literally translating to bread of dead. It is placed at altars, sold in every bakery and supermarket throughout the holiday period and is traditionally flavoured with orange or aniseed. The sweet bread or “pan dulce” is adorned with extra pieces of bread dough to represent tears and bones. This bread is one of the most symbolic foods of Dia de Muertos and emerged only after the Spanish arrived as wheat flour did not exist in pre-Hispanic times.
Try making your own pan de muerto with this recipe.
Dia de Muertos is more than dressing up and painting your face. The message of this celebration is an important one – laugh in the face of death, live a happy and fulfilling life and enjoy each day as if it were your last.