In Mexico, The Day of the Dead is marked with a classic mole and a glass of tequila. Laura Binder Hughes reveals how to join in the celebrations…
Although Halloween has acquired a very particular meaning in 21st century Britain, the origin of this cheerfully macabre celebration lies much deeper in the religious calendar, deriving its spirit from both the Aztec ritual, The Day of the Dead, and the Catholic celebration, All Saints Day.
Originally, the Day of the Dead was presided over by the Aztec goddess Mictecacihuatl; nowadays the ritual (celebrated between 1-2 Nov) has become a public holiday – a celebration of life, designed to honour the memory of lost loved ones. It’s a holiday in which the living join the dead in cemeteries across Mexico and in the United States, first to celebrate the lives of the angelitos (children) who have died and, on the second day, those who have died as adults.
Celebrants bring offerings of favorite foods, tequila and marigolds which are believed to attract the souls of the dead to the party with their vibrant colour and strong scent. Families set up makeshift altars in the cemeteries and in other public spaces and decorate their homes with personal mementos of the deceased, hand-cut paper decorations and – always – marigolds, the legendary flower with 400 lives.
Some of the most important dishes eaten as part of The Day of the Dead celebrations offerings are pan de muerto (a sweet bread) and mole sauces. They’re accompanied by marigold margaritas, drunk to mark the sobering thought that there is more Time than Life.
This idea also informs the work of Frida Kahlo, an artist who brought a strong sense of Mexican indigenous culture and practices to our collective consciousness. Kahlo, a flamboyant cook, made many moles – indeed, a copy of her recipe for the classic mole sauce, based on indigenous nut sauces was pinned to the kitchen wall of her stunning Casa Azul in Coyoacan, near Mexico City.
That recipe is the inspiration for the mole that follows at the end of this article. I’ve added pecans, because I am a Southern girl, and it’s pecan season, but also because pecans are often used in moles around Mexico as well. This mole goes well with chicken or shrimp, with the Mexican Red Rice, or inside soft corn tortillas with traditional garnish such as sliced radishes and chopped coriander.
And don’t forget, The Day of the Dead celebration is not complete without a proper margarita, made like they do in Mexico, simply, with good tequila, in a 2:1 ratio with fresh squeezed lime juice, and agave syrup to taste. Serve it in a salt and marigold petal-rimmed margarita glass.
Day of the Dead Chicken in Mole Sauce
(adapted from Frida Kahlo’s mole recipe)
serves 4 – 6
- Two ½ inch thick slices of white onion
- 2 garlic cloves
- 2 plum tomatoes, halved
- 1 two-inch piece of green plantain, peeled and sliced
- 4 dried pasilla or mulato chillies, de-stemmed and if you want a mild mole, de-pithed and de-seeded
- 4 dried ancho (poblano) chillies, de-stemmed and if you want a mild mole, de-pithed and de-seeded
- 3 tablespoons black or yellow raisins
- 3 tablespoons lard, or bacon fat
- 2 stale corn tortillas (or toasted corn tortillas)
- ¼ cup unsalted skinless almonds
- ¼ cup unsalted pecans
- ½ cup unsalted pepitas (Mexican hulled pumpkin seeds)
- 2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
- 2-4 cups chicken stock, or as needed
- ½ tablet of Mexican chocolate, about 1 ½ ounces, (eg Taza chocolate from Cocoa Runners, cocoarunners.com)
- 4 skin-on chicken breasts, seasoned with salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 180c. Place the seasoned chicken breasts in an oven-proof dish and roast for 1 hour, or until the meat is tender and the skin is browned.
Melt 1 tblsp of lard or bacon fat in a pan over a medium heat and add the onion, garlic, plantain and tomatoes, turning them until they are browned on all sides, and set aside. Dry toast the chillies until you can smell them, but do not burn them. Put the dry-toasted chillies and raisins into a bowl and cover with 2 cups boiling water, weighting them down, until the chilies are soft. Dry toast the almonds, pecans, pepitas, and the corn tortilla, in batches, but do not burn them. Remove the chillies and raisins from the water and strain the chili water for later use.
In a blender or food processor, blend the onion, tomato, garlic mix, the rest of the lard or bacon fat, the chillies, raisins, nuts, half of the sesame seeds, and the tortilla with the strained chili soaking water and enough of the chicken stock to make the mole thick but not too thick to blend. Transfer the mole to a saucepan and over low heat, stir in the Mexican chocolate. Season with salt and pepper, and add more chicken stock if needed to achieve the desired consistency.
Serve the mole sauce over the chicken, with the remaining sesame seeds scattered on top. The chicken mole can be served with rice or inside soft toasted corn tortillas with garnishes such as radishes and chopped coriander.
Mexican Red Rice
serves 4 – 6
- 1 small onion, diced
- 1 garlic clove, diced
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 cups long grain white rice
- 3 cups chicken or veg stock (or water)
- 1 cup tomato sauce
- salt, pepper
- 1 teaspoon, or to taste, cayenne pepper or other ground Mexican chili pepper
Preheat the oven to 180c. Heat the oil in a saucepan over a medium heat and cook the onion and garlic. Add the rice and stir until the rice is coated evenly with the oil. Add the stock and tomato sauce and enough water to cover the top of the rice by an inch. Bring to a boil, cover, and place in the heated oven for 45 minutes. Fluff the rice and serve.
To make one Margaria
- Margarita salt
- Edible marigold petals, lightly dried (Amazon £4.25)
- Good aged Tequila
- Fresh squeezed lime juice (do not discard the squeezed limes)
- Agave syrup
Combine the margarita salt and the marigold petals. Coat the rims of the glasses with squeezed limes and dip the rims in the salt and petal mixture. Combine 2 parts tequila with 1 part lime juice in a pitcher and sweeten to taste with agave syrup. Serve neat or over ice in the salted rimmed glasses, or shake in a cocktail shaker with ice and serve neat in the salt rimmed glasses.