Mexico’s Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrates the lives of those who have passed. Some families put together an ofrenda, an altar created in their honor, featuring photographs and the deceased’s favorite foods and drinks. Other families picnic at the burial sites of their loved ones. “When you travel to the cemetery to feast and celebrate the lives of your ancestors,” Mexican Chef Tello Carreon (formerly of Nixta in St. Louis) says, “It’s an experience you don’t really forget.”
While Mexico is known for its street food, the variety of vendors setting up shop depends on the day of the week and time of the day. You might be craving esquites, a cup brimming with boiled corn off the cob, dressed in a combination of lime, chili, salt, butter, mayo, and cheese; however, if it’s mid-day or earlier, you’ll have to wait until after dinner to get your fix. That’s not the case with tamales. Wrapped in corn husk and filled with meats, cheese, or sweets, tamales can be found on every corner, throughout the day. This inexpensive food is commonly grabbed on the go for breakfast—en route to a Dia De Los Muertos ofrenda, perhaps—with some vendors offering it up in a bolillo (a Mexican baguette, if you will).
“The best dish we made in celebrating Day of the Dead was the tamales,” says Carreon. (Find his recipe here or above.) “As a child, we used chicken, pork or beef stuffing, and sweetened the corn dough with strawberry and banana puree. I love all of the different variations of the dish.” According to Delia Cosentino, an Associate Professor of Art History and Architecture at DePaul University who specializes in the visual culture of Mexico, “The mouth-watering smells of favorite foods are believed to draw in the dead to such celebrations in their honor."
Mexico’s tamale vendors often sell other masa-based goods, too, namely masa-based drinks like atole and champurrado. Champurrado is a chocolate flavored atole, a warm Mexican beverage, chock full of ingredients indigenous to Mexico: masa, chocolate, and canela (cinnamon). The beverage is introduced into the diets of many Mexicans at an early age, and pairs perfectly with adult comfort food like tamales and cake.
Maybe the thought of drinking corn masa doesn’t sound appealing to you. To get over the foreign concept, think of it as a cereal-infused milk. You only need to look at the popularity of Momofuku Milk Bar’s cereal flavored soft serve to see that it's not a strange option. “Champurrado has an ancient and deeply rooted spiritual meaning because the drink dates back to the Aztec and Maya civilizations,” says Yanni Sanchez, chef at Chicago’s Bar Takito. “[It] will continue to increase in popularity.” (See Yanni's recipe, here or above.)
“Traditional Mexican food is anything corn-based,” says Cosentino. “Such as the masa used to make a tamale and champurrado.” She explains how these kinds of ingredients highlight a deep affinity with the ritual’s indigenous roots. Festivals honoring the underworld could be found in Mexico well before European invasion. The combination of these two aspects of indigenous culture make Dia De Los Muertos truly special. Cosentino explains how particular food and drinks marking the occasion often vary across Mexico, because regional celebrations are often different from one another. But items like mole, pan de muertos, and atole transcend regional boundaries.
The holiday is not only a personal celebration of family members who have passed on, but a demonstration of ancestral, pre-colonial pride, an appreciation of our indigenous roots. Nothing embodies this more than champurrado with it’s homegrown ingredients that have largely gone unchanged through the centuries. Said simply, champurrado—and many other corn-based Mexican foods, like tamalas—transcend the living and the dead.
Food has always been a unifier—no news there. But when someone goes through the painstaking task of creating something delicious for a person who can no longer eat it, you realize exactly how magical food can be. And nothing highlights this sentiment more than the Day of the Dead. These recipes are special because they come from chefs with Mexican roots, who grew up on the tradition of Dia de Los Muertos. It’s not something that they admired from afar and learned to create. They lived the experience of making food, alongside other family members, for someone who was gone but not forgotten. As a result of those memories, these recipes blossomed.
Chicken Tamales with Salsa Verde
- 12 jalapeños (13g)
- 14 tomatillos (25g)
- 2 bunches cilantro (6g), including the stems
- Salt, to taste
Tamales: Filling and Dough
- 1 1/4 pounds chicken (boneless, skinless thighs are best)
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- Salsa verde (see above), divided
- 2 cups masa harina
- 12 ounces salsa verde
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2/3 cup lard
- 1 8-oz package dry corn husks
- 1 cup sour cream
Champurrado (Mexican Hot Chocolate-ish)
- 1/4 cup masa harina
- 1 cup dark brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons cocoa powder
- 1/8 teaspoon morita or chipotle powder
- 1/8 teaspoon sea salt
- 2 cups water
- 2 cups milk
- 4 ounces dark chocolate (70% cocao)
- 2 cinnamon sticks
Do you celebrate Dia De Los Muertos? Tell us how in the comments!