Pan de Muertos - Day of the Dead Bread
Pan de Muerto is the bread that is prepared and eaten during the Day of the Dead season. It is an essential element of the altar, and perhaps the food item which is most closely associated with the holiday. Although the type of bread that is designated pan de muerto varies regionally, most commonly it is a round, sweet bread with shapes on top which are suggestive of bones, often either sprinkled with sugar or sesame seeds. Wheat was introduced by the Europeans, it was not present in ancient Mesoamerica. The significance of bread in the Catholic religion as symbolizing the body of Christ may be a factor in the importance of bread for this holiday. The bread is said to represent the deceased.
Calaveras de Azucar - Sugar Skulls
Skulls were a frequently-used design element in ancient Mesoamerica. The human skull was a symbol of life and death, and skulls were sometimes displayed on racks, or walls called tzompantli. The significance of these skull racks is not completely known; it's been postulated that they may have been altars and venues for ritual, or used to demonstrate military prowess. Sugar was introduced to the Americas in the 17th Century. In ancient times it's possible that skulls were shaped out of amaranth. You may come across amaranth skulls and chocolate skulls nowadays, as well as other figures associated with Day of the Dead, including coffins, skeletons and crosses. Sugar skulls are not usually eaten, but placed on the altar.
The word tamal comes from the Aztec word tamalli which means "wrapped." This food consists of a corn-meal dough and some type of filling that is wrapped in either corn husk or banana leaf, and steamed. These are a favorite food for the Day of the Dead season. A similar dish is prepared in the Yucatan Peninsula for Hanal Pixan celebrations: Mucbipollo is like a large tamal that is cooked in an underground oven.
Mole is a complex dish that requires many ingredients which are toasted and ground together. It is traditionally reserved for special occasions, because of the labor and time-intensive preparation (although you can purchase prepared pastes that simplify the process a great deal). Read more about Oaxacan mole and mole poblano.
Calabaza en Dulce - Candied Pumpkin
Although the Halloween jack-o-lantern is becoming more pervasive, it's not the usual presentation for squash during Day of the Dead. A pale orange-yellow squash with a hard shell called calabaza de castilla is much more common than the dark orange pumpkin, and it is usually cooked until it's soft with brown sugar and cinnamon, rather than cut into a jack-o-lantern or used in pies.
Recipe for Calabaza en Tacha
Chocolate is native to Mesoamerica. The beans were ground and consumed in prehispanic times as a hot drink, but unlike today the ancients drank their chocolate spicy, not sweet. In the past the cacao was ground on a metate (grinding stone), but nowadays it's usually ground in a special mill. The Day of the Dead season is when the weather starts to get colder, and hot drinks are favored at this time of year. Besides hot chocolate, atole and champurrado are also popular Day of the Dead drinks.
There are a few different types of fruit that are associated with Day of the Dead. Nisperos (or loquats) are a fruit that originated in Asia but have become popular in Mexico and are in season right around Day of the Dead. They are enjoyed at this time of year and are frequently used to ornament Day of the Dead altars. Some other fruits that are often present on Day of the Dead altars include oranges, bananas and tejocotes.
Want to make your own altar? Here's how: Make Your Own Day of the Dead Altar