EDITOR'S NOTE: Last year, Times Correspondent Jane Ammeson took a trip to a Mayan village to celebrate Day of the Dead. The tour was organized by Alltournative OffTrack Adventures, a company offering sustainable recreational tourism in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.
El Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is the Mexican religious holiday celebrated Nov. 1-2 that honors the departed. It centers around festivities and feasting and its roots stretch back millenniums.
So to experience the holiday as it was centuries ago, we left Condo Hotels Playa del Carmen, our luxurious hotel in Rivera Maya, the glittery stretch of beach and towns that line the Caribbean Ocean, and head southwest into the jungles to the micro-sized Maya village Pac Chen.
Nestled along the edge of a small lagoon and accessible only by a dirt road, Pac Chen, with the thick jungle crowding around it, had, at the time, no electricity but that didn't stop the villagers from planning an elaborate Dia de los Muertos feast for the tourists who had arrived featuring food and ceremonies that had long been a tradition here.
The beginnings of our dinner started in a small stick hut where women mix masa dough into balls then flatten them with their hands into perfect circles before filling them with mashed squash and folding them shut to create empanadas.
As I watch, a woman feeds wood into the fire that flickers beneath sheets of metal. Set on top are large skillets of bubbling oil that turn the empanadas into a soft golden brown. While the empanadas cook, embers from these small stoves are taken by the shovelful outside to a large grill set into a ceramic counter near the outside dining area that is topped with a thatched roof and placed underneath the comal or flat cooking surface. Once the surface is hot, women begin placing painted clay pots filled with rice, soup and warm tortillas on top.
As this part of the meal nears completion, the men, many of whom have been playing with the children of the village (some 100 residents in all), begin to gather around the pib, the deep hole in the ground that was dug the night before. Under the ground is a big metal pan containing a pig which, covered with dirt and banana leaves, has been cooking on the hot embers for the last 12 hours.
It is the centerpiece of our meal and the ritual of uncovering the pot begins as the women finish their part of the dinner.
The dirt is swept away and then the banana leaves removed, one branch at a time.
The village Shaman, an older man in a white cotton tunic and pants, arrives to say a blessing. He waves sweet incense and chants a prayer for the departed in the ancient Mayan dialect which is distinctly different from Spanish as he circles the pib.
Then the pot is pulled from the earth and moved to a small outdoor altar, decorated with brightly colored flowers. The Shaman further blesses the meal and then the food is served by young girls, some looking no older than 7 or 8, who carry big platters to the rows of tables that sit under a thatched roof. More girls carry large pitchers of Jamaican flower water and horachata or rice water.
Taking the thick tortillas from the stack, we make tacos from the succulent and tender pork that has cooked in the ground all night and heap our plates with freshly made empanadas and fill our bowls with a vegetable soup containing squash and corn.
And we eat as people in this village have for countless El Dia de los Muertos celebrations.
Recreating a Mayan meal at home
Even those who don't want to dig a pit in their back yard, the flavors of the Yucatan can be created easily at home.
Pac Chen Pork
2 purple onions
5 ounces of achiote paste (can be purchased in any Mexican grocery store or in the ethnic section of the local supermarket)
2 oranges (the juice)
1 clove of garlic, minced
1/4 cup white vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
Black pepper to taste
1 cup water
2 pounds pork steak
For the sauce:
1 purple onion
1/2 cup white vinegar
Habanero pepper at your taste
1 teaspoon oregano
DIRECTIONS: Dissolve the achiote paste in the orange juice, then mix with the rest of the ingredients. Rub over the pork steaks and let it sit for about two to three hours. Pace in a slow cooker and cook on low until very tender, about six to eight hours. Make sure to replace liquid so that it doesn't dry out. Pork is ready when it is so tender that it falls into pieces. Shred. For the sauce, chop the onion, the habanero pepper and the oregano and mix it with the salt, the vinegar and the lime juice. Serve pork with warm corn tortillas and sauce.
SOURCE: Provided by the village of Pac Chen
1 whole chicken cut into pieces or 2 whole chicken breasts
10 cups of water
2 tablespoons chopped oregano
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 onion chopped into 4 pieces
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons corn oil
2 medium peeled tomatoes, cut into pieces
1 chopped green pepper
6 slices of lime
6 tortillas chopped in slices and fried
DIRECTIONS: Cook chicken in water with oregano, garlic, onion and salt to the taste for about an hour. Once cooked take the chicken out, let it cool down and shred it.
Strain the broth. Put the onion in corn oil, add tomatoes and sweet pepper and marinate before adding the broth and 3 slices of lime. Sauté for 10 minutes. Add the shredded chicken, the rest of the limes and tortillas. Serve it immediately (if not the tortillas won't be crispy anymore).
Tikin Xic (Grilled Fish)
6 pieces of fish fillet (grouper or any white fish)
18 ounces achiote paste (can be bought in any Mexican grocery store)
2 whole white onions, sliced
2 whole green peppers, sliced
3 tomatoes, sliced
6 epazote sprigs (optional if not available)
6 banana leaves (or use corn husks which can be purchased at Mexican grocery stores)
NOTE: Add a serving of mixed, fresh vegetables on the side of each plate.
DIRECTIONS: Marinate the fillet with achiote for about 5 minutes. Put the fillet over the banana leaf or corn husks, add epazote, onion, green pepper and tomato. Wrap and put it on the grill. Cook each side for 4 minutes. Serve with vegetable on the side.
Licuados (Blended Fruit Drink)
Fruit such as cantaloupe, banana, pineapple, papaya or mango
Water or milk
DIRECTIONS: Blend all the ingredients together to taste until the drink has the thickness of a milk shake.
SOURCE: Above recipes are from Yaxche, a Mayan restaurant in Playa del Carmen, Mexico
Cebollas Moradas Encurtidas (Pickled Red Onions)
1 cup mild vinegar, such as apple cider, rice or pineapple
1/2 cup sour orange juice or water
1 garlic clove
1 teaspoon whole allspice berries, toasted
2 teaspoons whole black peppercorns, toasted
4 whole cloves
1 (2-inch) piece canela (Mexican cinnamon) or regular cinnamon
4 bay leaves, toasted
1 or 2 sprigs fresh thyme and/or marjoram
1 habanero chile, well-charred, left intact, optional
2 tablespoons canela or raw sugar
1 tablespoon salt
1 unpeeled orange or tangerine
3 large red onions, peeled and sliced 3/8 to 1/4-inch thick in rounds or strips
DIRECTIONS: Put everything except the onions in a nonreactive saucepan. Bring to a boil and cook for 7 minutes. Remove the orange. Put the onions in a bowl, pour the hot mixture over the onions and stir well. Juice the orange and add the juice to the bowl of onions. Stir again to ensure the onions are completely submerged. Cool to room temperature, stirring several more times. Refrigerate. Use as a condiment for recipes such as the above fish soup or chicken dish.
SOURCE: Recipes from "Mayan Cuisine: Recipes from the Yucatan Region," 2008
On El Dia de los Muertos, the dead are remembered and their return is celebrated with the building of elaborate altars featuring photos, brilliant orange marigolds and the special foods and drinks that the deceased enjoyed, said Stacy Hoult-Saros, associate professor of Spanish at Valparaiso University. Often, elaborately decorated, sugar skulls are also placed on the altar or simply enjoyed as candy.
"They're given out to the children," said Hoult-Saros noting that the holiday is celebrated Nov 1-2.
This year LIVE (Latinos in Valparaiso for Excellence) is hosting sugar skull decorating events, said Tim Garibay, a senior at Valpo and president of LIVE. The skulls and decorating materials will be available for free. And traditional foods often served on Dia de los Muertos, pan de muerto (bread of the dead) and Mexican hot chocolate will also be provided.
"It's a way for people to experience the holiday," Garibay said.
Sugar skull decorating, 11 a.m. Nov. 2
WHERE: Valparaiso University, first floor Chapel View
Day of the Dead is a holiday celebrated in Mexico and by Latin Americans living in the United States and Canada. The holiday focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died. The celebration takes place Nov 1-2 in connection with the Catholic holiday of All Saints' Day (Nov.1) and All Souls' Day (Nov. 2). Traditions include building private altars honoring the deceased, using sugar skulls, marigolds, and the favorite foods and beverages of the departed, and visiting graves with these as gifts.