Day of the Dead is a Mexican holiday celebrating people who have passed on. It’s held on 2 November and is a hugely colourful event, with beautifully decorated skulls and flowers used to honour the dead. Mexican families often cook a meal to remember loved ones too.
Chef Martha Ortiz is one of the biggest names in Mexican food. Her restaurants Dulce Patria in Mexico City and Ella Canta in London take the folklore and heritage of traditional Mexican cuisine and present it with incredible elegance.
Here, Martha explains what Day of the Dead means, talks us through her Day of the Dead menu at Ella Canta, and suggests authentic Mexican dishes to make at home.
What does Day of the Dead celebrate?
“In Mexico, Day of the Dead or Día de Muertos is one of the biggest, most profound celebrations. It’s a time when we bring people back to life, through food. It’s fantastic.
“I remember watching my mother make her father’s favourite food, after we lost him. She loved him very much. He was an Italian Mexican, so she made something very strange like pasta with mole, with a small glass of tequila all set out for him! But we had to be so respectful – and not go into the living room while his meal was there. And I thought it was magical. That the dead could come and eat with us.
What is your Day of the Dead menu?
“For me, I want my food to evoke an atmosphere. On Día de Muertos everyone in Mexico goes to the cemetery where there’s singing, beautiful flowers and petals, all lit with candles. There’s very little light.
“So I wanted to evoke the darkness in my food, which is why I created the ‘Painted Black’ menu. It’s a black mole, a black ceviche, a black broth – everything is black, black, black!
“Mexican food uses many black ingredients. For instance, huitlacoche. That’s a black fungus that grows on corn and it’s like a Mexican truffle. When you cook it, it goes so black and delicious. It’s very special.
“And we cook with ash in Mexico. The Oaxacan dish chichilo mole is cooked with ash and is beautifully black - not grey – black. That taste of darkness, of ashes, like a burned tortilla – it’s like tasting the night.
“I’m also making a black ceviche using cheeko sapote (or sapodilla). It’s a Mexican fruit that’s a cousin to the avocado and it has very dark flesh. We sometimes cook it fresh to make a dessert, using orange juice. But I will be using it with my ceviche.
“I adore all these black ingredients. I would love to serve my menu all on black plates, with black flowers. Imagine the drama! Food should be like an opera. A restaurant is a stage.”
What authentic Mexican recipes would you suggest people cook at home for Day of the Dead?
- First - you need to get your masa. Then I would make tortillas, before anything else. Read: how to make corn tortillas using a tortilla press.
- Next, I would make a nopal salad of cactus, coriander, tomato. And a tomato, herby pico da gallo salsa would be beautiful.
- I would also cook tamales – they are a huge thing in Mexico. You can fill them with anything you want, you can be so creative with beans, masa, salsas, vegetables – whatever you love all wrapped in corn husks.
- To finish I would serve atole which is a drink made with maize and water – you can add cocoa too. It’s the origin of the phrase ‘like water for chocolate’, which means your emotions are boiling over. Because water needs to be boiling so hard to melt chocolate. It’s all about the emotion!”
10 Mexican ingredients to celebrate Day of the Dead
Celebrate Day of the Dead with these authentic Mexican products, and read more about each item below.
Naturelo masa harina is made from dried corn kernels, which are cooked and soaked in lime water, then ground into a fine flour. Use a tortilla press to make beautiful artisan tortillas, a classic base for so many authentic Mexican dishes.
Gran Luchito’s chiptole chilli paste is made from a mixture of five Mexican Oaxacan chillies. The delicious and versatile smoked chilli paste is the perfect way of introducing authentic Mexican flavours to a dish. The smoky-spicy flavours are balanced by the sweetness of dark agave nectar, mixed with onion, garlic and balsamic vinegar for big, rich flavours.
These authentic Mexican refried black beans or frijoles negros refritos made by La Costena are a classic side dish sprinkled with queso blanco (white cheese). Use the spicy beans to fill burritos and enchiladas, or top nachos.
Cuitlacoche, or huitlacoche, is an inky black paste with a smoky, earthy flavour. Cuitlacoche comes from a purposefully-cultivated fungus grown on the ears of corn which is simmered to a deep coloured paste.
La Costena chipotle peppers in adobo sauce are one of the most popular brands of chipotles in adobo in Mexico. The homemade-style sauce is rich in juicy chipotles - smoked jalapeño peppers - and the small 200g tin contains around nine whole red jalapeños.
Tamed jalapeños are the perfect thing when you want the taste of jalapeño without knock-your-socks-off spiciness. Use the tamed jalapeños in tacos and burritos, salads and sandwiches.
Epazote is an intensely aromatic herb that’s commonly used in Mexican and Guatemalan bean dishes. Because of this, it is also referred to as ‘the bean herb’. The aroma compounds the herb do not stand up to heat very well, so add epazote towards the very end of cooking. As well as black bean and refried bean dishes, try adding a sprinkle of epazote to quesadillas.
This round tortilla press is made to a traditional design. Place a ball of masa harina dough in the middle of the open press. Close the two halves, then press down on the handle to instantly make a perfectly thin and round tortilla. Use greaseproof paper on either side of the press to make it easier to remove the pressed tortillas.
Corn husks are used for wrapping food when steaming, grilling and barbecuing. Simply soak the dried husks in just-boiled water for 15 minutes so that they become pliable, keeping them submerged. Drain and then use to wrap your food.
For more Mexican inspiration, check out our collection of Mexican products and recipes.