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Traditional Día de los Muertos Food

Día de los Muertos is a holiday rich in Mexican tradition, so it's only fitting the food is just as celebrated. Many people know that Pan de Muerto is consumed during this time, but there are so many other traditional meals commonly eaten. 

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Mexicos' Day of the Dead or Día de los Muertos is an ebullient holiday, occurring from October 31 to November 2, that honors the lives of loved ones who have passed.

One of the most sacred customs of the holiday is the preparation of altars that serve as a tribute to the deceased. They're decorated with things that the person loved during their life, and food is a crucial component of the altars specifically and of Day of the Dead as a whole.

"During this time, people adorn these special altars—known as ofrendas—with cempasúchil (marigold) flowers, burning copal (incense), fresh pan de muerto (bread of the dead), fruits, candles, sugar or chocolate skulls, photographs and mementos of the departed," says Juan Aguirre, Executive Director of the Mexican culture non-profit Mano a Mano. "The food varies depending on the region."

The holiday showcases the breadth of Mexican cuisine, with a mix of savory dishes, sweet treats, bright colors, and strong spice depending on where in the country you're celebrating. Many of these traditional Day of the Dead foods are also made by Mexican communities in places like Los Angeles.

"This tradition is rooted in the native Mexican belief that life on earth is a preparation for the next world and of the importance of maintaining a strong relationship with the dead," Aguirre says.

"It’s not funereal, it’s not morbid, it’s not about being spooky. It’s about joy and color and flavor and celebration, all the mixed emotions," James Beard Award-winning chef Pati Jinich tells OprahMag.com. "It’s a very Mexican thing to have extreme sadness with extreme joy at the same time."

Whether you're trying to plan your own authentic Day of the Dead celebration or simply hoping to learn more about this sacred Mexican holiday, read on to explore the traditional dishes and culinary customs that bring Día de los Muertos to life.

Pan de Muerto
The most universal Day of the Dead item is the Pan de Muerto (or Bread of the Dead). Jinich explains that it's found all over the country, and that in recent years its popularity has led to it being more readily available throughout the fall. This "spongey, yeast-based egg bread" is now available with Nutella and whipped cream, though Jinich's preferred recipe incorporates orange blossom water.

"You used to be able to only get it a week before Day of the Dead and then during the three days of celebration," says Jinich, whose show Pati's Mexican Table airs this fall. "But people love it so much that in the last five or six years you can find it from the end of August through September and October."

Pan de Muerto is both made in the home and at bakeries around the country, with every baker approaching it in their own way. It's also known as pan dulce or sweet bread.

As you'll see, many of the holiday meals vary greatly by region, but this is one of the truly unifying Day of the Dead dishes.

"I would say that one thing that is never missing is that bread," Jinich says.

Calabaza en Tacha
Candied pumpkin is a Day of the Dead dish primarily associated with the Yucatan Peninsula, but it's popular around the country. Just like the holiday itself, calabaza en tacha has pre-Hispanic, Mayan roots.

Not dissimilar from American candied yams, calabaza en tacha is made from pumpkin chunks, cinnamon, piloncillo cane sugar, and/or brown sugar. It's often served with ice cream or cream, and unlike candied yams, is primarily a dessert dish.