While the U.S. has brought out the pumpkins — whether carved, spiced for lattes, baked into bread or all of the above — Mexico is preparing for Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) or, in certain parts of the country’s Yucatán region, Hanal Pixán, the Mayan version of Día de los Muertos.
And contrary to popular misconceptions, Halloween has nothing to do with Mexico’s celebrations on Nov. 1 to 2. Particularly not with Hanal Pixán, which means food for the souls, and is a time families prepare special meals to honor ancestors they’ve lost.
“Sometimes it gets a little confused, the Hanal Pixán and the Día de los Muertos with Halloween because it’s so close,” says Sergio Zárate, executive chef at Grand Fiesta Americana, a Coral Beach Cancún all-inclusive resort and spa, where one of the meals in particular is prepared for guests. In previous roles, Zárate was private chef to the royal family of Bahrain. “But I think, and the way we Mexicans look at it, it is kind of more like a Thanksgiving because it’s remembering from our past, our families and all those who have died, and it’s a way to honor them.”
For Hanal Pixán, a large feast is offered for the souls departed and placed on an altar, often alongside other tokens, like photographs of loved ones, marigold flowers and candles. The idea is that those passed on will be ushered home during this period to eat and be honored by their family. Hanal Pixán, according to Zárate, who’s from Mexico City, is celebrated more “in the in the rural towns, in los pueblitos con la familia [in the little towns with the family].”
One of the traditional Mayan meals on the menu is mukbil pollo. In Mayan, muk means “to bury” and bil means “to stir or mix.” The dish, when done traditionally, is assembled above ground and then buried for cooking. As Zárate says, it’s “kind of like a very old school barbecue, but it’s all covered in plantain leaves and it’s left there to cook overnight.”
The result is what the chef describes as a sort of large tamale filled with a mixture of chicken, pork, local epazote (a Central American herb) and spices.
While guests at Grand Fiesta Americana have a chance to sample it prepared in an oven, the Mayan women who work alongside Zárate would prefer the dish prepared underground, in keeping with tradition.
“We cook it here in the ovens but it still comes out good,” he says. “We couldn’t cook it under the sand — the hotel’s right on the beach, so the sand is very humid and it wouldn’t come out properly anyway.”
The main point, Zárate says, is to maintain tradition.
“With all this globalization and all these people coming from the small towns and living in bigger cities, they want to embrace the new culture,” he says. “It’s like they’re losing touch with tradition, which is, in my opinion, what we have. It’s our roots.”
Below, Zárate’s recipe for mukbil pollo (for oven preparation, unless you have access to mountainside terrain to dig into).
This delicacy is prepared for the celebration of the Day of the Dead. It is believed that through this dish we can get a connection between the world of the living and the world of the dead. Known as Hanal Pixán (food for the souls) Yucatecan people wait for this season to create this masterpiece of the culinary world. Made of nixtamalized corn [a traditional preparation where dried kernels are cooked and steeped in an alkaline solution, usually water and food-grade lime], lard, chicken and a bunch of condiments that form a kind of enormous “tamal,” wrapped in banana leaves, then buried and cooked slowly using the heat of incandescent stones. — Chef Sergio Zárate
– Corn dough 2 kg (4.4 lbs)
– A bit of corn flour 100 gr (3.5 oz)
– Lard 200 gr (7 oz)
– 1 whole chicken
– 200 gr (nearly half a pound) ground pork
– 1 cup xpelón beans (can also be substituted with black beans)
– Achiote paste 50 gr (1.75 oz)
– Salt (to taste)
– 2 red tomatoes julienned
– 1 large onion
– 1 sprig epazote (also known as Mexican tea, a Central American herb with notes of oregano, anise, citrus and mint)
– 4 bay leaves
– 4 garlic cloves
– Habanero peppers (to taste)
– Banana leaves (previously washed and rinsed)
Start cooking the chicken in cold water, add bay leaf, whole black peppercorn, half onion and two cloves of garlic and a pinch of salt. Once everything is cooked, set aside the meat and separate the broth.
Pour the broth into a skillet. (You will need about four cups.) Dissolve the achiote in the broth and add a bit of salt; add some corn flour to the broth to make a thick sauce, called Mayan kol, in which the chicken will finish cooking.
Mix the corn dough with the lard, add salt achiote paste to give the dough that special color. Add the xpelón (or black) beans.
To make the corn dough base, cover the bottom of a roasting pan with the banana leaves, put masa (dough) on the leaves, giving it the shape of the pan. Save some masa for the end, in order to form the cover of the dish.
Shred the chicken and sauté with the remaining onion, garlic, julienned tomatoes and epazote leaves.
Finally, put the lid of masa on top, wrap the whole with the banana leaves. Preheat the oven at 300 degrees Fahrenheit and bake for about an hour and a half.