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Day of the Dead: What to Cook for Hungry Spirits

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Tue, Oct 18, 2011 at 10:00 AM
click to enlarge a table in Tijuana - BARBARA HANSEN
  • Barbara Hansen
  • a table in Tijuana

Souls of the departed are wandering the earth now as they head home for a good meal. They'll eat their fill on the Day of the Dead -- Día de Muertos -- when families all over Mexico, and here too, greet them with their favorite foods. The holiday lasts two days, starting November 1 when the angelitos (children) are honored. The next day is for all the muertos.

The custom is to arrange the dishes on an altar and decorate it with flowers, candles, photos of the dead and other memorabilia. The display could include anything from a pack of gum to the most sumptuous mole, says Nancy Zaslavsky of West L.A., who takes Day of the Dead tours to Oaxaca, where the celebration is especially ornate.

click to enlarge Tijuana Day of the Dead candies - BARBARA HANSEN
  • Barbara Hansen
  • Tijuana Day of the Dead candies

Oaxacan altars would include a piece of turkey or chicken in mole negro (black mole), which is Oaxaca's most important festival dish; also tamales of mole negro wrapped in banana leaves and other tamales with fillings such as chicken pipián, cheese, squash with chiles and sweet tamales with pineapple and raisins. A corn soup with epazote and creamy bean soups are also popular.

But it all depends on what the spirits liked during their days on earth. That could mean a favorite boxed cereal, a bottled salsa, soft drink cans, candies and fruit. There might be a little dish of roasted peanuts to snack on with tequila, mezcal or beer. Not just any beer. Only the brand that the departed drank can appear on the altar. "People are very adamant about what their favorite beer is in Mexico," Zaslavsky says.

Thirsty spirits might also find a fresh green coconut with a straw for sipping the cool liquid inside and aguas frescas such as tamarindo or sandía (watermelon). There might be atole and hot chocolate, made with water for adults and milk for children, whose main dishes might be lighter Oaxacan moles such as coloradito and rojo (red).

Whole pineapples and other fruits might appear on the altar, along with sugar skulls and a pan de muerto, a round bread decorated with bones and tears made of dough.

The breads are already appearing in panaderías in Los Angeles, not just large loaves but small buns with the same deathly protuberances.

click to enlarge Nancy Zaslavsky in Tijuana - BARBARA HANSEN
  • Barbara Hansen
  • Nancy Zaslavsky in Tijuana

If you're doing a Day of the Dead dinner at home, check out Olvera Street for sugar skulls and little scenes of skeletons going about their daily activities: the same whimsical scenes that you would find in folklore stores in Oaxaca.

The flower associated with the Día de Muertos is the sempasúchitl, an orange marigold. And the mole? That's the easiest part. Get it, along with other essentials, from a Oaxacan restaurant such as Guelaguetza, which has locations in Koreatown and Lynwood.

If you insist on making your own, Guelaguetza sells its mole pastes on line and provides recipes. But if you're a purist and want to make black mole from scratch, you'll find a genuine Oaxacan recipe in Zaslavsky's book, A Cook's Tour of Mexico.

Read more from Barbara Hansen at www.TableConversation.com, www.EatMx.com, @food and wine gal and Facebook.

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