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The importance of food for the dead during Hanal Pixan

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Veronica Garibay
Veronica Garibayhttp://yucatanmagazine.com
Verónica Garibay Saldaña is a Mexican columnist, communications major, and poetry enthusiast. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.

Among the Day of the Dead offerings, favorite foods — along with candles, flowers, and photographs — are the central elements. Pan de Muerto, sugar skulls, and dishes such as mole are commonly left on altars for loved ones all throughout the country.

But in Yucatán, these elements take a back seat to Hanal Pixán meals, a Mayan tradition that translates to “food of the souls.”

Typical altars in Yucatán include mucbipollo (or pib), local candy, fruits, and traditional beverages. Photo: Courtesy

During the Hanal Pixán celebrations, altars are adorned with oranges, tangerines, sweet potatoes, jicamas, chile, atole nuevo, and tan-chucuá (corn and cocoa-based atole) as well as tamales, especially mucbipollo or pib, the star of the party. To understand the line-up, here’s a list of some of the traditional dishes you may encounter on our altars.

Mucbipollo or pib: The traditional Yucatecan tamale

This dish is the most important in the Hanal Pixán celebrations. It is a tamale or corn stew wrapped in banana leaves. It is traditionally cooked underground over a slow fire, as the ancient Maya did.

The preparation of the pibs is often shared with the family or community. Photo: Courtesy

It is filled with pork, turkey, or chicken; sometimes even all three, and comes out to have a thick, crispy exterior, with a soft, creamy interior.

Finished pib, cooked in a metal tin, but always wrapped in banana leaves. Photo: Courtesy

Also known as Mukbil Pollo or Pibipollo, it can take up to 10 hours to prepare. However, the smoky flavor offered by the earth and the slow cooking process has made it a staple all over the Peninsula.

Tanchucuá: a thick cocoa beverage

When looking for a traditional beverage to accompany the pibs, locals will sometimes refer to Tanchucuá. It is a gruel made out of ground cocoa and corn dough.

Tanchucuá is often enjoyed in states such as Tabasco, although is sometimes found in smaller communities throughout the península. Photo: Courtesy

In some cases, anise is added to the drink, which comes out to be a thick liquid often enjoyed hot. It is mainly consumed in the Yucatan Peninsula and in the state of Tabasco

In Yucatán Magazine: Cemeteries and festivities will be open this year for Hanal Pixan celebrations

Xek: Citrus salad or dessert

This simple dish can be served both as a dessert or as a salad. It is a combination of orange, mandarin, jicama, and sometimes cilantro. The citruses are mixed with lime juice, salt, and chili powder. Some people even add cucumber to the mix.

Xec is one of the dishes which are commonly prepared in schools, during the Hanal Pixan celebrations. Photo: Courtesy

It is a wonderful way to highlight the citrus of the state, especially considering that Oxkutzcab, a community inside Yucatán, is the citrus capital of the world.

Balché: A drink conceived by a native tree

This drink is of pre-Hispanic origin. It was forbidden during colonial times as it was considered “pagan.” It is obtained from the bark of the native Balché tree and is usually mixed with cinnamon, honey, and anise.

Balché is often prepared in traditional rituals and events. Photo: Courtesy

The mixture is boiled and then left to ferment for one to two days, depending on the desired sweetness. 

Typical sweets are part of the traditional Hanal Pixán meal

Although the mentioned drinks are sweet, traditional Yucatecan desserts and sweets are a must in the offering.

Caballero Pobre is one of the most popular, local desserts in Yucatán. It is often placed among the offerings, especially if the deceased was a fan. Photo: Courtesy

Some of the ones often found in altars can be papaya in syrup, coconut, and pepita candies, mazapanes, or more elaborate dishes like Caballero Pobre — a typical Yucatán dessert made with French bread dipped in milk, sweetened and fried.

In ancient times, the Maya buried their dead with symbolic offerings to join them in their journey. Nowadays, it is more common to place them on the table, directly on the altar, or even enjoy them in the cemeteries, close to the loved one’s grave. 

Children often partake in the festivities by making their own altars at school. Photo: Courtesy

As the festivities come to an end, make sure to take advantage of the final days of pibs and pan de muertos around the shops, as these beloved dishes only show up once a year.

In Yucatán Magazine: Día de Los Muertos or Hanal Pixán: What’s the difference?

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