Food for the Soul

November is under way and another Día de Muertos has quietly passed by. With 2020 taking it’s toll on another tradition and celebration, by having all public events and gatherings cancelled, although people would have set up ofrendas (altars) in their private homes for this important Mexican holiday, so it’s not that the meaning or true traditions of the days were lost, simply the public aspect of them.

The importance of Día de Muertos in Mexico was actually recognized internationally when UNESCO added it to its list, Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity but while most people have heard of Día de Muertos and the ways it’s celebrated, with traditional differences throughout Mexico – have you ever heard of Hanal Pixán?

Our state, Quintana Roo is populous with the Maya peoples, meaning the traditions of Hanal Pixán prevail and there are some differences from Diá de Muertos. Hanal Pixán means Food for the Souls in Maya and like many other mesoamerican traditions, with the arrival of the Spaniards, it morphed from it’s pre-hispanic traditions into what we know today. Just as with Día de Muertos, Catholic priests designated the days for the Maya to observe their rituals, having them coincide with the established European dates All Saints Day and All Souls Day.

The first day of both Día de Muertos and Hanal Pixán is November 1st, with the gates to heaven opening at midnight of October 31st for Dia de los Inocentes – Day of the Children (aka All Saints Day). Then November 2nd is All Souls Day, or Día de Muertos – Day of the Dead, when the adults can pass through and rejoin their loved ones. For 8 days the souls of the departed drink, feast and enjoy spending time with their living family. Family members welcoming them with their favourite foods and drink, lighting the way with candles and drawing them in with the colour and scent of cempacuchils (marigolds). Gourds, tamales, tortillas, sugar skulls and photos of the departed are also often found on the ofrenda.

One distinction between Día de Muertos and Hanal Pixán is the traditional food mucbilpollos, or simply mucbil, also commonly referred to as pib (referring literally to the way in which mucbilpollo is traditionally prepared – buried in an earth oven, a pib.) This Mayan dish is an essential Hanal Pixán tradition and is only found at this time of year. Pib is chicken, coated in a thick corn masa layer that has been seasoned with salt, achiote and pig grease (lard), then wrapped in banana leaves and buried in the ground to cook.

If you’re lucky enough to be in the area during this special time of year, ask around to find yourself some mucbil, or if you’re feeling adventurous, try preparing some mucbilpollo in the oven yourself. It may not be quite the same taste as traditional buried chicken, but it’s a start.

Thinking of making a day of it and want to plan a special dinner? Like other mexican holidays and celebrations, what’s traditionally placed on the ofrendas, as well as what’s served to the living in celebration, varies across Mexico from region to region and many of the foods suggested are found at anytime of the year, not strictly for Día de Muerto or Hanal Pixán – so take these suggestions with that in mind and feel free to start your own special Día de Muertos/Hanal Pixán traditions!

Pan de Muerto. One of the most popular and delicious elements of Día de Muertos is Pan de Muerto – Bread of the Dead. Starting mid-October, you’ll find it in abundance at groceries and local bakeries. This sweet bread is a staple on the ofrenda as well as for the living to enjoy. With it’s distinctive design of bones on the top and it’s light orange flavour (although other variations can be found), a thick slice of pan de muerto with an afternoon coffee, hot chocolate or atole is one of the season’s best treats. How to make your own Pan de Muerto, from Mexico in my Kitchen.

Pan de Muerto

Tequila. Hoist a glass to your friends, family and to those who’ve passed on with a traditional shot of tequila. For a unique twist on both the ofrenda tequila and the tequila offered your living guests, check out this beautifully coloured Marigold Infused Tequila from SweetLife Bake. Remember to use organic, pesticide-free flowers!

Atole.  From the Nahuatl word, ātōlli – this traditional and popular hot drink is made from corn flour/masa or starch, sweetened and comes in various flavours. It’s found throughout the year but is particularly common at Christmas and for Día de Muertos. For a Pecan Atole, look at this recipe and if you’re a fan of sweet Mexican Mazapán, here’s another recipe for you to try (both from Kiwilímon).

Sopa Azteca. Delicious and enjoyed throughout the year, tortilla soup is a common dish used across Mexico to celebrate Día de Muertos. Try this deliciously authentic recipe from Hispanic Kitchen.

Mexican Hot Chocolate. Dating back to the Mayans and Aztecs, traditional Mexican hot chocolate is good anytime but is particularly nice with some Pan de Muerto. Whether traditionally hand frothed with a molinillo, or using more modern methods, it’s rich, chocolatey goodness. It’s not the smooth, powder-based hot chocolate you’ll find popular in other places, so you could go through the process of grinding nibs and creating a truly artisanal drink, or purchase artisanal chocolate from a supplier – or you could just go to the store like most Mexicans. The two most common brands to look for are Abuelita and Ibarra. Both products are solid, pre-formed tablets, pre-mixed with sugar and cinnamon, so you can be sipping chocolate caliente in no time! For a really traditional, spicy chocolate drink, try this recipe with chilies, nutmeg and allspice, from GrowingUpBilingual.

Tamales. Popular throughout Mexico and common at any time of year, this mesoamérica dish is made with corn masa (dough) and filled with meats, vegetables and/or cheese and is used for both the ofrendas and living guests for Día de Muerto. You can even make sweet tamales for an after dinner treat. Depending on the region, you’ll find them wrapped in either corn husks or banana leaf, with the banana leaf version being what you’ll most commonly find on Cozumel. You can find excellent recipes and instructions for both savoury and dessert tamales here, at Muy Bueno Recipes and Stories.

Enfrijoladas. Tortillas smothered with a savoury black bean sauce, then filled with meats, cheese or vegetarian options, enfrijoladas are the cousin to enchiladas and are found throughout Mexico, often enjoyed as a morning meal. Topped with options such as raw onion, cotija cheese and crema, this is a traditional, stick-to-your-ribs kind of meal for Día de Muerto. For delicious chicken or chorizo versions, take a look at this recipe from Mexico in my Kitchen. For a bean and cheese recipe, here’s one from a former Cozumel resident, trying to spread some island love from British Columbia, Canada with Mexican Please.

To learn about how traditional preparation of Mucbilpollo is done, you can read more here. Are you ready to jump in and try making your own, oven-baked version of pib? Try this recipe from MexicanRecipes.Me Perhaps you’re fluent in Spanish or want some extra practice? Then check out this recipe from mas-mexico.

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