You may be a tad confused by the title of this posts, perhaps asking how can this be my first Day of the Dead Altar. I am 100% Mexican (born here too) but just like many other families around Mexico mine didn’t have the altar building tradition. My Catholic family did observe the holiday, but in a different way. My parents took us to the cemetery and also to mass and that was pretty much the extent of our Día de Muertos celebration. Now as an adult I haven’t been a Catholic for many years so of course other than remembering my deceased loved ones and treating myself to the seasonal foods, Day of the Dead wasn’t too big of a holiday for me.
But this year it’s different…
In a matter of days we will be marking the 6th month anniversary of my father’s death. Some days it feels like he’s been gone for so much longer, and at moments it seems as though it was just yesterday that I got that awful phone call. Just like many people that love my father I too keep a picture of him by my side. In our own ways we each honour his memory every day.
This year my original plan was to light a candle by my father’s picture and to sit quietly and replay some of the fond memories I have of him. Never having built an altar I didn’t really know how or where to begin since I didn’t grow up with the tradition, but it was a conversation that I had with my older sister C. that help guide me. My sister is a wonderful woman and an amazing mother (all my sisters are) that wants to teach her children about their heritage — this includes delving deeper into Mexican traditions that perhaps our family only scratched the surface on. She really does an amazing job with all of it too and she’s such an inspiration to me. A couple of weeks back we were having a conversation about how we didn’t grow up with the altar tradition for Día de Muertos. She then said something that really struck me, “…even though we didn’t grow up with the altar tradition I think it’s a nice one, specially now that our father is gone”.
She’s right. And it was those words that inspired me to honour my dad’s memory in a better more special way than I had originally planned. Slowly I gather the items for the altar and slowly it started coming to life.
Day of the Dead is a Pre-Hispanic tradition that has been celebrated for at least 3,000 years by the many indigenous groups of the lands that are now Mexico. As of 2008 it became part of UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists. At it’s roots the holiday was celebrated as a special day of remembering those that are no longer with us. They believed that on this day the souls of the departed where allowed back for a visit. They didn’t view death as an end but rather a continuation onto the next journey of life. The holiday is not intended as a sad or macabre day, it’s meant to celebrate the person’s life and all the good they brought into the World when they were here with us.
The modern day celebrations go for three days: the 31st of October is for remembering children who have passed, the 1st of November is for the deceased adults, and on the 2nd of November a mass is celebrated for all of dead (this was an addition by the Spanish). On these days, and in addition to visiting the gravesite, the loved ones build altars to help guide the spirits back for their visit back to our realm. The altars may vary slightly depending on the region and based on the particular indigenous group that live there, additional variations include touches that have been added by each family. Another difference lies in the amount of levels that are built for each altar, it can be only two or up to nine, additionally each level of the altar represents a different meaning.
Every Día de Muertos altar has items placed on it that are meant as an ofrenda or offering for the spirit. These items play an important role and all represent a special significance. A photograph of the person is always placed at the highest point of the altar. The four elements earth, wind, water, and fire must be present. Earth is represented in the fruits, flowers, and seeds or grains that can be included. Wind is represented by the decorative paper or papel picado. Water by a glass of water which is placed to quench the spirits thirst. Lastly fire is present in the candles and the copal which is a type of incense.
Personal items that belonged to the deceased are also placed on the altar so that they find comfort. You’ll often find sugar or chocolate or amaranth skulls (they can have the name of the dead person on them) on altars and one of the beliefs is that they represent that death can also be sweet. Marigold flowers are always present too because it is believed that their strong scent helps the spirits find their way to the altars. Ears of corn are placed by some because the holiday coincides with the harvest of our most important crop. Food and other favourite drinks are always present because it’s believed that the soul will be hungry and thirsty after the journey. Salt is included because it represents the purity of the spirit and to help it stay pure for it’s next journey. Some also include a bar of soap, water, a towel and a mirror in case the spirit wants to wash up too. Lastly, additional items and personal and religious touches may be added to the altar as the family sees fit.
There are so many details and history that go with building an altar. I tried to keep mine simple and included what I felt was important to me at this time. I did however make sure to include the four elements, food, water, salt, copal, and some personal items. My finished altar that I built for me is not pictured here, but in it I have my father’s photograph along with one of his rolling pins because he was a super talented baker and his rolling pin was a tool special to him. Additionally I ended up including photographs of all four of my grandparents, a very special uncle on my husband’s side, and of course my beloved puppy Panchito.
My altar is small but I can’t explain to you how therapeutic it was for me to plan this and see it come to fruition. In these 6 months I have never stopped feeling my dad’s energy around me, but this makes it feel just a bit closer. And though I do not follow the religious aspect of the holiday, I do however love the idea of being able to feel my father’s presence stronger if even just for one day. Who wouldn’t want that. For as long as I live I will always look forward to this time of year so that I can honour my father’s spirit just a little more.
Though my people come from the other side of Mexico, the Yucatan Peninsula is where I now call home. Living here has opened me open to a whole culinary world I didn’t know existed — and I so love sharing these discoveries with you all. The food that I placed on the altar pictured here is an ancient Mayan dish that is traditionally only served during this time of the year. The Maya call their day of the dead Hanal Pixán and the rough translation is “food for souls”. Needless to say, food plays an important role in their celebrations. During the later part of October and into November families across the Yucatan prepare this dish called mucbipollo (which may also be referred to as “pibipollo” or simply “pib”) The dish is basically a giant tamal that is shaped in a bowl and stuffed with meats, onion, tomato, chiles, epazote leaves, and a red sauce before placing a dough “lid” on it then wrapping in banana leaves. Once wrapped up it is traditionally taken to be cooked in an underground pit (or pib) where it is slowly cooked for hours before being eaten.
When I read about this mucbipollo I knew it had to be incorporated into my altar. Of course since the traditional recipe uses meat I took on the challenge to make it a meat-free dish, and just coincidently it became vegan — which probably isn’t too far from the ancient recipe since ingredients like pork and lard where introduced to the native diet by the Spanish, and it’s believed that the indigenous diets were heavily meat-free ones prior to the conquest. I did very extensive research to try to stick to the traditional recipe as best as possible, and I think I did a pretty good job at it too.
My filling was made of entirely vegetables like potato, Yucatecan zucchini, spinach, and a special seasonal young bean from the region called expelon (or espelon). The bean is highly prized and I’ll be sharing a special article about it another time. But don’t worry you can use black beans instead. You may or may not be able to find the same zucchini (or calabazita as it’s known here) which is too bad because it has a very unique flavour. The texture is firmer, it looks like a patty-pan squash, and the taste is something between a pumpkin and a zucchini. I think you could either use patty-pan squash or even pumpkin, if you’d like. Lastly you’ll notice that there is a reddish hue to the dish, this is due to the achiote (or annatto) paste (also called recado rojo). The paste not only gives it the colour but also much of the dish’s flavour. It is a tart, slightly smokey and aromatic spice that is very commonly used in the cuisine of the Yucatan — you may have seen it used for cochinita pibil, the slow roasted pork dish (don’t worry I’m working on a vegetarian version to share with you). The red paste can be purchased at your local Mexican food store or even online through Amazon. The banana leaves can also be purchased at Hispanic, Caribbean, or any Asian food market. Typically you’ll find them frozen, so all you do is defrost them.
Okay, let’s get to the recipe then I’ll tell you how mouthwatering this vegan pib tasted!
- !Tamal Filling Ingredients
- 513 grams or 1.32 lbs about one large, green patty pan squash or substitute with zucchini or pumpkin, cut into even-sized bitesize pieces
- 466 grams or 1.02 lb of potatoes (it was two medium-large potatoes), cut into even-sized bitesize pieces
- 82 grams or 2.9 oz of finely chopped white onion
- 3 large cloves of garlic, roughly minced
- 100 grams or 3.5 oz of frozen spinach, weigh after thawed and all excess water is squeezed out
- 200 grams or 7 oz of cooked black beans (alternatively use the traditional espelon bean)
- 1 liter or 5 cups of low-sodium vegetable broth
- ½ teaspoon of ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon of ground cumin seed
- 1 teaspoon of crushed, dried Mexican oregano
- 1 teaspoon of dried epazote leaf or replace with dried parsley
- fine sea salt to taste (start with 1 teaspoon because the achiote paste is salty too)
- 2 Tablespoons of olive oil or vegetable oil of choice
- !Ingredients for the kol or Sauce:
- 1.5 Tablespoons of achiote paste
- 1 cup of water
- 3 Tablespoons of dried corn masa
- !Ingredients for the Dough or Masa:
- 500 grams or 1.102 lbs of instant corn flour for tamales (it's called masa and I use a smaller bag of this brand)
- 1 teaspoon of fine sea salt
- 350 ml or 1.5 cups of vegetable oil (I used canola oil)
- 2 to 3 cups of low-sodium vegetable broth or water (amount will depend on humidity in your kitchen)
- 1 Tablespoon of achiote paste
- 100 grams or 3.5 oz of cooked black beans
- large pack of banana leaves
- !Ingredients for Topping The Filling:
- freshly sliced red tomatoes, as needed
- thinly sliced white onion, as needed
- thinly sliced habanero pepper (or a milder chile may also be used), as needed
- In a large pot heat up the oil, once hot add the onion and saute until soft. Next add the minced garlic and saute for a minute, then add the potatoes and fry for about 5 minutes. Next add the patty pan or pumpkin and cook for a few more minutes (If using regular zucchini add at step 2). Carefully pour in the broth, sprinkle in the seasonings and allow to simmer until the vegetables are soft -- but not mushy.
- (PREPARING THE KOL OR SAUCE) While you wait for the veggies to cook combine all of the ingredients from the kol or sauce list. This will make a thickish mixture that you'll use in step 4.
- (PREPARING THE MASA OR DOUGH) Next prepare the masa (or dough) by combining the achiote paste with the 2 cups of broth and oil in a bowl. Whisk or stir until the paste has completely dissolved. Now in a large bowl combine the corn flour with the salt, then little by little begin mixing the liquid mixture into the flour. Use your hands to work the liquid into the flour and continue to add more until you achieve a dough with the consistency of play dough -- not too dry, and not too wet. Lastly add the cooked black beans from the masa ingredients list and work them into the dough until they are distributed throughout. Cover the bowl and set aside.
- (CONTINUE COOKING THE FILLING AND PREPARING THE SAUCE) Once the vegetables are soft, add the cooked beans and the spinach (if using regular zucchini add now) to the pot. Then pour in the mixture from step 2 and simmer under low heat for 10 minutes. After this very carefully separate the cooked vegetables from the broth by placing a large colander over a big bowl or large pot, and draining the broth into the bowl or pot. You need to reserve both! Once the veggies have drained off the liquid set them aside and pour the liquid back into your cooking pot. At this time taste this broth and if needed add more salt or any of the seasonings from the filling ingredients list. Next, over medium-low heat gently simmer this leftover reddish broth until it becomes thick like a gravy. Depending on how humid it is where you live you may or may not need to add another tablespoon or two to the broth in order for it to thicken up.
- (PUTTING THE TAMAL TOGETHER) While you wait for the sauce to thicken up preheat the oven to 200°C or 392°F and have a large baking sheet ready. You can either make the whole Mucbipollo in a large deep baking dish, or you can prepare 4 individual sizes like I did (which aren't too small). The process will be the same but if you will do the one large then the process isn't repeated, of course.
- Once the sauce has thickened up you can start shaping the tamales. If making one large tamal then set about one quarter of the dough aside to make the lid. If making 4 individual tamales then separate the dough into 4 equal parts, from each of these four pieces remove one quarter to make the lid. With each piece make a ball. If making the one large tamal, layer the baking dish with banana leaves until they cover the entire dish and even fall off the sides. If making the 4 smaller ones lay a large piece or two of banana leaf on your working surface. Place the dough ball on the centre of the banana leaf and use your fist and hands to form a bowl just like you see in the photos. Next scoop in some of the vegetable filling and spread it around the cavity of your dough bowl to create an even layer. Then arrange slices of tomato, onion, and the chile around the top of the filling. Next ladle some of the red sauce over each tamal and smear it around.
- Next take that remaining quarter piece of dough and lay it on another piece of banana leave. Use your palms and fingers to flatten the masa and create a flat thin disk that is large enough to cover your tamal bowl. If you'd like you can spread a little bit of the red sauce over the top before proceeding. Once ready carefully place the flat disk over the filled tamale and pinch it around the edges to seal it. Now as best as you can fold the edges of the banana leaf that you placed your tamal on, to create a wrapping. Carefully lift the wrapped tamal onto your baking sheet and continue until all four are prepared, once they are place in the oven and bake for 2 hours. Keep an eye on it because the banana leaves will crisp up and smell like their are burning.
- After baking your tamal or four tamales, leave them to rest for 10 minutes so they can cool down and be handled. When ready to serve place each one on a serving plate and carefully cut away the banana leaf wrapper to expose the tamal. Since this one is bake the texture will be firmer and a bit drier -- in fact the top crust will even crisp up but be tender in the inside.
- Refrigerate any leftovers for up to one week and you can also freeze the uncooked mucbipollo for a few months if desired.
You can make this dish as spicy or mild as you like. For the extra spicy version use slices of habanero chilies, for a medium heat use serrano peppers, and for a milder version use jalapeno peppers.
I know the ingredients and the steps are many in this recipe, but it really is worth every little moment spent making it. You know, it actually doesn’t take that long to prepare and the hardest part is waiting for it to cool down so you can dig in. I think I may need to do a video tutorial so you can all see just how easy it is to make this tamal — easier than the corn husk wrapped ones for sure!
The taste of this vegan mucbipollo was phenomenal. My husband said that I outdid myself and that this was one his new favourite dishes of mine — not a bad review at all. The tamal tasted smokey, earthy, savoury, and you could really taste the tender vegetables that paired so well with the flavours of the slightly tart achiote paste. The outer crust was crispy but inside it was tender and oozing with the vegetables and sauce. It’s unlike any other dish, and certainly tamal, that I have ever eaten. I really do hope you make it to see for yourself.
The painting says util death do us part. My husband bought it for me a couple of years back from a local artist here in Playa del Carmen and it quickly became one of my favourite art pieces. I think it fits well on the altar, no? 😉
Thank you for stopping by and for reading this very long post. I hope that you too can honour your loved ones in your own special way. Have a beautiful day and inspirational Día de Muertos.