In many Latin American countries like Mexico, the Day of the Dead is one of the oldest traditions practiced. The Day of the Dead lasts from October 31 to November 2 and is celebrated to honor the deceased. Day of the Dead isn’t a somber or sad celebration — it’s a colorful festival where people celebrate and remember their deceased ancestors.
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Among other activities, Day of the Dead flowers are placed on Day of the Dead altars set up in homes as a tribute to loved ones who have passed away. Another important part of the celebration is eating and drinking with family members and placing food and drink on the altars.
Get ready for Day of the Dead festivities by stocking up on these traditional foods and drinks.
Day of the Dead Food
Food is a significant part of this day, both as offerings to the dead and as refreshments for friends and family. It’s believed that the deceased come back to visit the living if tempted with their favorite foods.
An ancestor’s most-loved foods are always placed on altars to provide them with sustenance when they visit their families during Day of the Dead. It is believed that the food turns bad the next day (after their ancestors eat) because they take the essence of the food away.
1. Sugar skulls
Exclusively a food for the altar, these elaborate skulls carved with white sugar are beautifully decorated with colored icing, vibrant colors, feathers, glitter, and small bead-like candies.
Skulls are just one of the Day of the Dead symbols and their colorful decoration directs the focus to the cycle of life.
2. Pan de muerto
Almost every altar has pan de muerto, or bread. The recipe varies from region to region and it can be made light and fluffy, heavy and dense, or egg-based and is flavored with anise and orange juice.
Tamales are made with a corn husk or a banana peel stuffed with corn masa (paste). You can prepare sweet tamales with a sweetened bean filling or fruit and nuts or savory tamales with chicken or shrimp filling.
The same basic tamale masa dough can be used for any recipe, but the filling is often a deceased relative’s favorite
Made with eggs, milk, and cream, caramel flan is a traditional Day of the Dead dish. The sweet caramel sauce on top of the flan gives it a rich caramel color that makes the eggy yellow color of the flan stand out. It’s a perfect altar dessert.
Nothing beats a good serving of fried puff pastries! Sopapillas are made with white flour dough folded into layers to make the puff pastry. They can be baked or deep-fried in oil.
They are best eaten by both the dead and living when drizzled with honey or dusted with powdered white or colored sugar.
6. Calabaza en tacha
Also known as candied pumpkin, this Day of the Dead food is a sweet dessert offering. It’s made by using chopped pumpkin or whole pumpkin with holes punched into and filled with spices. The chopped bits are either cooked with cinnamon, orange, water and piloncillo glaze or brown sugar or caramel sauce.
Corn-based tortillas are topped with marinated meat, beans, and cheese to make a chalupa or sopa. Spread the cooked meat and beans and lettuce or cabbage, on top of the toasted corn tortilla.
A common and popular Day of the Dead dish, chalupas are often placed on the altar because so many people love this popular food.
A mole recipe is always passed from one generation to another, so what better dish to serve on the altar? Made into a dark, creamy sauce, Mole is made from chocolate, peppers, and ground spices.
Made with humble ingredients like eggs, butter, vanilla, buttermilk, sugar, and flour, these crispy desserts are fried and eaten as-is or stuffed with jam or Nutella.
Brimming with jalapenos, garlic, cumin, cayenne pepper, and lime, this classic Mexican stew can be made with pork or chicken. It takes a lot of effort and can take around 6 hours to be fully cooked or stewed. Place this authentic Mexican soup on the altar to draw your deceased loved ones with its spiced aroma.
An interesting version of classic enchiladas, flour tortillas are filled with spiced chicken or another shredded meat. Instead of topping it with a green or red sauce, it’s dipped in red or black bean sauce. Spicy and saucy, this dish will surely tempt the dead!
Day of the Dead Drinks
Along with food, both non-alcoholic and alcoholic drinks are placed on the altar to entice the deceased. You can find some of the best traditional drinks below. Be sure to give them a try!
One of the agua frescas, this drink is both refreshing and pleasant. Horchata a milk-based drink and is made with slight variations according to each family’s recipe.
One popular horchata recipe is made with almond and rice with a tiny squeeze of lime. Horchata is one of the most popular and traditional altar drinks.
2. Hot chocolate
Champurrado is a thick, sweet hot chocolate. It’s a perfect blend of chocolate, milk, corn, and piloncillo (brown sugar). Cinnamon and anise help make it more fragrant and vibrant. Serve hot on the altar or to guests when it’s hot and foamy.
Mexican atole is prepared with corn masa harina, a type of corn flour. It’s an ancient drink that dates way back to the Mayans and is an ideal drink to serve your ancestors. Vanilla and cinnamon add an exquisite taste to atole to make atole de vainilla.
4. Agua de jamaica
This herbal tea will help your ancestors digest all the food they eat from the altar. Made with the hibiscus flower, this tea is infused with a flavor close to cranberry juice and has a tart taste. You can serve this hot or cold on the altar and to your friends and family.
Made with agave, mezcal is a popular spirit to serve the spirits of the dead. It has a deeper, smoky grass flavor than traditional tequila and is best served cold with ice cubes. Mezcal can also be used to make other drinks like margaritas.
6. Oaxacan lemonade
A lemonade made to take the edge off the heat for both the living and the dead, this drink is served chilled. Created in Oaxaca, the hub of the Day of the Dead festival, it’s made with lemon, herbal vodka, cilantro, mezcal, and agave.
Together, these ingredients give birth to a refreshing, tangy, slightly sour, and smoky drink that your ancestors will love.
7. Paloma perfecta
Even more famous than the margarita, Paloma Perfecta is a juicy drink made with grapefruit soda, tequila, and lime.
To make it even juicer, you can mix together grapefruit soda, grapefruit oleo saccharum, grapefruit juice, and grapefruit beer. It’s tangy and pink, a perfect fit for the vibrant colors of any Day of the Dead celebration!
8. El guapo
Want a drink that can outshine your altar decorations? Then, look no further than el guapo. This naturally neon pink colored drink is made with prickly pear, a desert fruit that gives it its distinct hue. Mix in reposado tequila, prickly pear syrup, ginger beer, and lime for even more flavor.
9. Spicy chocolate caliente
If you or your ancestors are up to the challenge, then sprinkle chili powder into your Mexican hot chocolate for a bit of spicy fun. Chile guajillo is the best chili to use and it’ll give the hot chocolate an earthy and fruity taste.
Calientes made with Mexican chocolate (not regular chocolate), milk, and cinnamon is best when served piping hot.
10. Lavender margarita
Combine lavender simple syrup with fresh lemon juice to make the margarita light and floral. This is sure to be a hit with ancestors and guests alike.
11. Marigold muerte drink
Did you know marigold is edible? Yes! And that’s why it can be used in this spectacularly citrusy drink. When made with Vinho Verde sparkling white wine, it doesn’t look or taste as strong as it actually is, so be careful!
Dine with the Dead
Day of the Dead food and drinks are versatile and delicious so make sure to try some of them during this festive season. Whether you help out your friends during their celebration preparations or you prepare a dish just to try something new, you’ll be glad you did and can check a unique item off your food bucket list.
- Godoy, Maria. “Sugar Skulls, Tamales, and More.” The Salt, NPR, November 1, 2016. npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/11/01/500242132/sugar-skulls-tamales-and-more-why-is-that-food-on-the-day-of-the-dead-altar
- Marqez, Yvette. “Dia de Los Muertos.” Recipes by Holiday, Muy Bueno Recipes and Stories, October 7, 2019. muybuenocookbook.com/dia-de-los-muertos-day-of-the-dead-celebration-and-marigold-muerte-drink-a-guest-post/
- Martin, Cheryl. “Sopaipillas Are a Sweet Way to Celebrate the Day of the Dead.” Features, The Courier Press, October 31, 2007. archive.courierpress.com/features/sopaipillas-are-sweet-way-to-celebrate-day-of-the-dead-ep-448984531-324716041.html/
- Raffay, Anika. “Dia de Los Muertos Carmel Flan Recipe.” SoupedUp Recipes, SoupedUp, October 15, 2019. soupedup.com/day-of-the-dead-caramel-flan/