Coconut curry, a composed salad, and brioche-like bread may not seem like the treats of Halloween. But from Latin America to Asia, families court unearthly spirits in October and early November by cooking up some delicious dishes.
For much of the world, the All Hallow’s Eve tradition dates back to the Samhain festival celebrated in ancient Ireland and Britain on November 1, when Celts believed the souls of the dead returned to their homes. To keep them away, they lit bonfires, donned ghoulish masks, and left out offerings of food.
In the 7th century, November 1 was declared the Christian holiday of All Saints’ Day, perhaps in an effort to snuff out paganism, with All Soul’s Day following on November 2. Much later, trick-or-treating likely evolved from the British practice of handing out “soul cakes” to the poor. It wasn’t until the 1970s that mass-produced, wrapped candies became the Halloween sweets of choice for Americans (though Cocofloss has many ideas for fun alternative treats!).
This spooky season, when autumn winds whirl and goblins and ghosts abound, find comfort in your kitchen with these ghoulishly good recipes from around the globe. They’re sure to appease the spirits — or at least tame a monstrous appetite! 👹
With as many as 50 ingredients, fiambre salad is not a last-minute dish. But as one Guatemalan cook told Saveur, “Who knows what the dead want? With fiambre, they can pick their favorite things.” Hearts of palm, chorizo, cabbage, baby corn, beets, sardines, shrimp — all are fair game for fiambre, which means “served cold.”
You’ll find this colorful, layered salad only on All Saints’ Day in Guatemala, where families traditionally bring the dish to cemeteries as an offering to ancestral spirits. These days, family and friends share fiambre at home, using recipes that have been passed down through generations.
Varieties include beet-rich fiambre rojo, vegetarian fiambre verde, and cabbage-packed fiambre blanco. Since making the dish is time- and labor-intensive, take a tip from Guatemalans and prepare it in advance with the help of loved ones. ¡Buen provecho!
In Cambodia, even the dead work up an appetite. During the 15-day fall holiday of Pchum Ben, also known as the “Hungry Ghosts Festival,” families prepare an enormous feast for their ancestors. They bring their dishes to pagodas, where Buddhist monks act as intermediaries between the living and the dead, accepting the nourishing gifts in exchange for “merit.”
Balls of sticky rice are common offerings — and are sometimes tossed into rice fields to satisfy the ghosts. Many cooks also prepare Khmer delicacies, including one of Cambodia’s most famous dishes: amok, a mild, custard-like curry made with coconut milk, kaffir lime leaves, and flaky fish, steamed and served in a banana leaf. At some celebrations, the monks eat their fill and then everyone is invited to join in this spiritual potluck.
Imagine warm, sticky gingerbread cake served on a cold autumn eve beside a roaring fire. In Northern England, locals take part in this sweet tradition every year on November 5, Guy Fawke’s Night, or Bonfire Night — and to some, Parkin Night. Traditionally made with oatmeal, dark molasses, and golden syrup (similar to corn syrup), parkin has ancient ties to Bonfire Night, dating back perhaps to the Vikings and pagan fire ceremonies held at the end of October.
If you happen to be in England on November 5, you’ll find festive gatherings of friends around a burning effigy of Guy Fawkes, celebrating the foiled Gunpowder Plot of 1605, in which Fawkes and 12 other men failed to assassinate King James I of England. Sounds like a good enough reason to eat cake!
Filipino children in the rural provinces practice “pangangaluluwa” on All Saints’ Day with a kind of caroling and trick-or-treating mash-up. As representatives of lost souls in purgatory, the kids go from house to house, singing songs that ask for alms and prayers. They might receive cash, candy, or more traditionally, suman, which are sweet, sticky rice cakes steamed inside banana leaves.
Filipino cuisine like suman was a regular part of childhood for Cocofloss co-founders Chrystle and Cat Cu, who have deep roots in the Philippines. (The Cu’s grandfather and mother lived outside Manila next to a shack full of coconut husks!) For Halloween, Cat recommends two recipes that cook up culinary creepiness (even if they aren’t traditional to the holiday).
“The ingredients in halo-halo, a traditional Filipino dessert full of yumminess, are quite spooky!” says Cat. “There are bright purple taro chunks, gooey red beans, blood-red gelatin cubes, jack fruit strips (they have the texture of a tongue), and nata de coco. Biting into the nata de coco is like piercing your teeth into a fresh eyeball — or at least that’s how I imagine it. 😜 Halo-halo is also perfectly named for Halloween!
In a tender and loving tradition, Mexican families honor the departed by preparing their favorite foods for Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) on November 2. Elaborate ofrendas, or alters, welcome beloved spirits back to the living world with old photos, marigolds, sugar skulls, candles, cinnamony atole, and decadent dishes like chocolate-and-chile–spiced mole, calabaza en tacha, or candied pumpkin, and above all, sweet pan de muerto (bread of the dead).
This domed, brioche-like bread features the flavors of orange-flower water and anise seed. Shapes of dough on top represent the skull and crossbones of the deceased — or sometimes a tear from the ancient Aztec goddess of Chimala, who cries for the living.
At some panaderías in the U.S. and Mexico, the skilled bakers transform the dough into a fluffy rabbit or a frilly doll to honor children. Families leave the pan de muerto out on the ofrenda overnight for the dead to dine. Then in the morning, the living return to enjoy the bread for breakfast, often with a steaming cup of Mexican hot chocolate.
Day of the Dead Bread (Pan de Muerto)
Recipe courtesy of Bon Appėtit.