Early Halloween, Celebrating the Day of the dead

Halloween is near and as in the past four years, we celebrated a week early as it clashes with a family birthday.

It is no surprise that 2020 has been a challenging year and when it came to pick a theme for our party, I wanted nothing to do with ghoul, spiders, rats or bloody human parts.  I am ok with ghosts and skulls though, and have always liked the Mexican tradition and mystics around the Day of the Dead ritual, so we went for that instead.

There is always something comforting and uplifting about the idea of celebrating the lives of loved ones who have left this world. Mexicans honour their dead by creating beautiful altars and holding family gatherings to pay tributes to their deceased loved ones.

A blend of Mesoamerican ritual, European religion and Spanish culture, the holiday is celebrated each year over 3 days,  from October 31- November 2. While October 31 is Halloween, November 1 is “el Dia de los Inocentes,” or the day of the children, and All Saints Day. November 2 is All Souls Day or the Day of the Dead. According to tradition, the gates of heaven are opened at midnight on October 31 and the spirits of children can rejoin their families for 24 hours. The spirits of adults can do the same on November 2.

Unlike the European holiday of All Saints, it is a joyful occasion where it is believed that the border between the spirit world and the real world dissolve. During this brief period, the souls of the dead awaken and return to the living world to feast, drink, dance and play music with their loved ones. In turn, the living family members treat the deceased as honored guests in their celebrations, and leave the deceased’s favorite foods and other offerings at gravesites or on the ofrendas ( altars )  built in their homes. 

When we lived in Mexico, I was mesmerised by the variety and attention to details on some of the ”ofrendas”. Every component has a specific meaning in welcoming the souls of the deceased: the marigold flowers guide the spirits back to the home with their fragrance, the candles are there to show the light, the papel picado ( perforated paper)  is decorative but also represent the wind, water is offered to quench the deceased thirst after their journey, salt as a soul purifier. The main food offering is Pan de Muerto, or bread of the dead,  a sweet bun shaped as the skull and bones and citrus scented. Pictures of the deceased are also included, taking pride of place in the celebration. Because the  main objective behind the offering, is for the souls of the deceased to still enjoy the same things they did when they were alive; it is not unusual to find all types of objects on these altars, from toys in the case of altars dedicated to children, to books, beer bottles, and cigarette packets in other cases.

My main altar in the living room.

The building of an altar takes time, gathering all the different elements. Mexican people start in early October, in fact most plan throughout the year. In our case, I started a couple of weeks in advance, inspired by Chef Marcela whose instagram account showcases delicious looking Mexican food and insanely gorgeous table settings. Having decided to honour my Malagasy grand-parents and Mr T’s Australian parents, I dug out whatever items we had accumulated over the years: old photos, candle holders, clay skulls, perforated paper, skeletons and bones ( from the Halloween stash ). I found marigold flower blooms at our local nursery, enough to make a pretty arrangement but not the long garlands we see in Mexico. So I also bought several bunches of dried everlasting daisies to create a mass of orange flowers, on and around the altar. The piece de resistance, the bread of the Dead, was provided by Dulce Beso, a Mexican bakery in Sydney who takes online orders for home delivery. How easy is that?

As for the table setting, it was kept simple: white table cloth, white plates, a big bunch of everlasting daisies, bay leaves and rosemary and jalapenos for name tags. 

The dress code was Mexican or Halloween, up to the guests. The kids stuck to the Halloween theme, Hannah recycling her zombie queen of heart costume and the boys showing up with toy guns ( I dared not ask what they were supposed to be ). The men were quite subdued this year, while the ladies channelled their inner Catrinas with beautiful headpieces, masks and mexican jewellery. I played it simple myself, wearing a traditional embroidered blouse I purchased in Chiapas many years ago. 

Onto the food. More than hosting a party, I get great enjoyment from planning one. For some reason, organising the menu, sourcing ingredients and provisioning bring me joy. I know, it sounds weird to some, but we are fortunate in our family that most of us feel the same way and appreciate the love that goes into cooking good food for friends and relatives. So when the Day of the Dead/Mexican theme was announced, I received the fastest response from my guests. Shelley was the first to text me: “ Can I make a pumpkin pie, pleaaaaaaase?” Tania was merely a minute later “ I will make prawn tostadas”, followed by Carolyn “ I am onto the Guacamole. And curry puffs too, because everybody love curry puffs, even Mexican people”. Kathy brought a black bean dip with copious amounts of corn chips. As for Danielle, she repeated her cheesy stuffed bread which had been a huge success last year. Mal surprised us all with jalapeno poppers, smoked by his good self in his own new smoker. What can I say? Almost all the starters disappeared within minutes.

Prawn tostadas

Curry Puffs
Bean dip, smoked jalapeno poppers, cheesy cob

Being in charge of the mains, I decided to keep it simple with a roast pork, a vegan dish and some tacos. While it was simple in my mind, it did require some organisation and special ingredients. A little internet research led me to Mexico City Food for supplies of corn tortillas, tajin chili lime seasoning, dried chilis, hibiscus flowers and pozole. The roast pork had to be started 2 days ahead, as it required 7 hours of slow cooking and resting overnight. I found a recipe from Yucatan that involved agave and a lot of chilis, including the fiery hot habanero. Fearful of ruining the dish and hurting guests, I halved the quantity of chilis which resulted in a very mild yet still tasty sauce.  Because I wasn’t sure the kids would enjoy anything too spicy, I decided to make 3 separate taco fillings: a bland crispy chicken popcorn, a more spicy seasoned fish and a rich octopus braise. All served with the usual assortments of tortillas, guacamole, shredded lettuce, ancho mayo and tomato salsa. And catering for the vegans, was a plant-based dish of wild mushrooms, pozole and black rice with pepitas seeds, pomegranate and parsley ( greatly inspired by Chef Marcela’s post, who didn’t provide a recipe though so I winged it! )

The sweet selection consisted of a few lollies and a couple of fruit platters. I know, fruits don’t sound sexy for a Halloween party, but the kids enjoyed them to nibble on ( after the corn chips were gone…) and a sprinkle of tajin seasoning on them made them interesting enough for the grown ups to have a taste.

Then, dessert time came and we had a  choice of Craig’s birthday cake made by Rosalie ( an amazing deconstructed red velvet cake with buttercream, meringues and chocolate ganache ) or Shelley’s pumpkin pie topped with ginger biscuits and candied pecans. Most people had a serve of both!

It was a great night. Despite the cold weather that forced us inside, COVID restrictions which restricted our numbers, we all forgot about the misery 2020 brought on so many of us, for a while. 

The altar is here to stay until  November 2.

Happy Halloween!

Hibiscus Blood Orange Punch

Hibiscus flowers are very popular in Mexico and often used to make a refreshing iced tea or agua fresca. I found this recipe by accident, which happens to include mint and blood oranges, ingredients I had on hand. It is super easy to make ahead of time and can be served chilled, warm, fizzy or flat. This is a non alcoholic version I made for the kids, but there is no reason you can’t add a shot of tequila and have yourself a Day of the Dead margarita!

Makes 8 cups

Ingredients

3 cups water

15g dried hibiscus ( or 6 hibiscus tea bags )

2 blood oranges, juiced

1 lemon, juiced

1 handful fresh mint

1/2 cup brown sugar ( raw cane sugar would do )

4 cups mineral water ( sparkling if you prefer a fizzy drink )

1 blood orange, for garnish

  1. In a small saucepan, bring water to the boil. Add the hibiscus flowers and mint, then turn the heat off. Cover and let it infuse for 10 minutes.
  2. Strain the hibiscus and mint. Add the juice from the blood oranges and the lemon to the “tea”, as well as the brown sugar and the extra water. Stir well and let it cool completely. Chill in the fridge until cold and ready to serve
  3. When ready, add slices of extra blood orange. Enjoy!

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