“The border between the dead and the living, if you’re Mexican, doesn’t exist. The dead are a part of your life…” – Sandra Cisneros
October is upon us, ushering in the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the dark, solitary days of winter. Autumn is a time of transition, reflection, and yes, dying. As the natural world decomposes around us, it prepares itself for stasis and eventually the renewal of spring. Think of it as a gentle nudge from Mother Earth, reminding us that death, while inevitable, is never final. There are many cultures around the world that view death not as a dreaded and fearsome end but a celebration of life. A Day of the Dead – the chance to honor loved ones who have passed on through singing, dancing, activities, and of course, delicious food. Read on as we discuss food-related death rituals around the globe to get you in the spirit of the season.
Day of the Dead, Mexico. Photo courtesy of Salvador Altamirano on Unsplash
Food and drink play a big part in funerals in Thailand (and it’s pronounced “Tie-land” not “Thigh-land”). The food served when someone passes depends largely on the region. Melon soup, vegetable curry, pork, and noodles are mainstays on a funeral menu. It’s tradition that guests attending the service bring a small monetary donation to share in the expense of feeding the attendees. Large quantities of food are served throughout the seven days by the family.
Thai Fish Market. Photo courtesy of Lisheng Chang at Unsplash.
The funeral process for the Greek-Orthodox religion is very complex with strict standards that are followed. The funeral itself if led by a priest who performs the Trisagion Service. After the service, a burial takes place. Once the burial is over, it’s time for Makaria. Makaria is translated as “meal of blessings” or mercy meal. In Greek mythology, Makaria was the daughter of Hades, god of the underworld. Traditionally, fish is served at the mercy meal this is a symbol of Christ. It’s a simple meal and includes a Greek salad, rice, vegetables, fresh fruit, and Metaxa or Greek brandy. No desserts are served even though this is a time for celebration. The Greeks also serve Kolyva – a sweet dish consisting of wheat berries studded with nuts and dried fruit. Kolyva in the Greek Orthodox faith symbolizes the circle of death and rebirth. The dish is only served in a few circumstances including the beginning of Lent and during a memorial service.
Greek fish. Photo courtesy of Shawn Anggg on Unsplash.
Fun fact – in Japan, it’s considered extremely rude to pierce a bowl of rice with chopsticks then leave them there. That’s because this gesture is used at a Buddhist wake and again at memorial services. The meal served after a Japanese funeral is called Okiyome – where the living break bread with the dead at the otsuya and at the kasouba. Traditionally, guest eat sushi and drink liquor (that’s my kind of funeral). Before partaking in drink, the head of the household of the dead gives a toast and shouts “kenpai” or cheers.
Traditional Japanese sushi. Photo courtesy of Giovanna Gomes on Unsplash.
The United States
In the Western United States, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints serve a traditional dish known as “funeral potatoes” – a creamy casserole consisting of hash browns or cubed potatoes – at after-funeral dinners. If you head to the east coast, you’ll find that meals served at an Amish funeral vary from community to community. Raisin pie, cold cut sandwiches, and potato salad can often be found on the menu along with a “delight pudding” – a creamy dessert served with fruit and topped with a thick fruit sauce. And then there’s the culinary delights served at Jazz funerals in New Orleans. From classic étouffée and mouth-watering beignets to red beans and rice, traditional funeral meals in The Big Easy draw from Creole, Cajun, as well as West African influences.
Photo by Chelsea Audibert on Unsplash.
Mexico and Latin America
Finally, perhaps the most well-known of the death-related food rituals is celebrated throughout Mexico and Latin American on Día de Muertos – Day of the Dead. And no, this isn’t Mexico’s version of Halloween although there are skulls, dancing skeletons, games, and of course, delicious treats. This multi-day holiday celebrated on November 1 and 2, involves families gathering together to honor loved ones who have passed on. Traditional dishes include pan de muerto (Mexican day of the dead bread), Mexican hot chocolate, and tamales.
And now here’s something I think you’ll really like →
Mexican Hot Chocolate Cupcakes with Spicy Whipped Cream
For the cupcakes:
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 ½ tsp cinnamon
- ¾ tsp baking soda
- ½ tsp salt
- ½ tsp cayenne pepper (I like the kick, you can add less according to your preference)
- ½ warm water
- 1/3 cup cocoa powder
- 6 tbs butter brought to room temperature
- ¾ cup sugar
- 1 egg
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- ¼ cup vegetable oil
For the Spicey Whipped Cream Topping
- 1 cup heavy whipping cream
- ¼ cup confectioner sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- ½ tsp cinnamon
- ¼ tsp cayenne pepper (again, add more or less to taste)
- Sprinkles or shaved chocolate for decoration
- Preheat oven to 350° F
- In a small bowl, mix the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, salt, and cayenne pepper. Set aside.
- In another bowl, mix the water and cocoa powder until it’s smooth with no lumps.
- Using a stand mixer, cream the butter and sugar together until the consistency is light and fluffy (roughly two minutes). Add egg, oil, and vanilla and mix until combined. Alternate adding the dry ingredients with the cocoa mixture – add a small amount of each at a time and mix until smooth.
- Carefully spoon the batter into a cupcake tin lined with paper liners. Fill liners no more than ¾ full.
- Bake 18-20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean.
- Let cool completely
- While the cupcakes are baking and using your stand mixer’s whisk attachment, combine the heavy cream and powdered sugar for about two to three minutes or until soft peaks have formed. Take care not to overmix.
- Add the vanilla extract, cinnamon, and cayenne pepper. Beat for another one to two minutes longer. You’ll know when it’s done by the peaks.
- Transfer the topping to a piping bag and pipe onto cooled cupcakes. You can also spoon the frosting onto the cupcakes but that doesn’t look as pretty.
- Top with chocolate shavings or sprinkles.