Autumn is one of the most vibrant times to be in Mexico City because preparations for Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) are in full swing. Bustling morning markets sell bundles of marigolds bound for the celebration’s ofrendas, or ritual offerings, and farmers hawk their prized calabaza, the Mexican word for pumpkin and squash.
The quintessential symbol of autumn, pumpkin can be found in six continents around the world – but its true home is Mexico. Calabaza is a pre-Hispanic crop that dates back more than 7,500 years. These original pumpkins were small, hard and bitter, but their durable exterior was ideal for surviving harsh weather and less bountiful harvests, which made them an integral part of the ancient Mexican diet.
In today’s Mexican markets, you won’t find any smooth, bright orange Jack-o’-lanterns (those are usually Connecticut Field pumpkins, originally cultivated by Native Americans, which are more apt for carving than eating). Instead, markets sell calabaza that can be bulbous and beige, round and green-striped, or bumpy and yellow with crooked necks. The pulp appears in savoury dishes like moles and tamales, and the pepitas, or seeds, are often just thrown on the comal (griddle) and salted. Calabaza is even crystallized into hyper sweet, waxy confections that are artfully displayed in traditional candy store windows throughout Mexico City.
“You really have to travel through the country to see the endless ways calabazas are used, because the dishes are so regional,” said Lesley Tellez, culinary tour guide and author of Eat Mexico: Recipes from Mexico City’s Streets, Markets & Fondas. “Like beans, chilies and corn, it is one of the most important ingredients in the whole cuisine.”
While most parts of the world only use the pulp of the pumpkin, Mexicans have cooked with the entire calabaza for thousands of years. The pepitas were cherished by the Aztecs, and the entire fruit was enjoyed by the Mayans – pumpkin flesh was cooked into sauces, the hulled seeds were toasted and ground up and the rinds were carved into drinking vessels.
When the Spaniards came to the Yucatán, they were served a dish called papadzules, or “food for the lords”, consisting of corn tortillas dipped in a pumpkin seed sauce. The Spaniards brought the nutritious calabaza back home, where it spread throughout the world and diversified over several centuries.
Calabaza en tacha – a dish that’s popular at Day of the Dead festivities –is simply prepared, starting with a pot of pumpkin and unrefined cane sugar, which is reduced into syrup; the darker the colour, the deeper the flavour. Guava and cinnamon sticks are added, and it’s all left to simmer for an hour, so the spiced syrup can slowly soak into the pumpkin flesh. Looking somewhat unappetizing, tourists are often sceptical to try the mushy brown treat resembling candied pumpkin, but locals know better. After all, they’ve have had some time to perfect it – several millennia in fact.
When the calabaza is finished simmering, you’re left with a traditional Mexican dessert that’s a product of the autumn harvest, and a far cry from the pumpkin spice lattes, doughnuts, pies and ale that you’ll find in the rest of the world. This is pumpkin the way it was intended: simple, naturally flavourful and authentic.
“This dish represents so much of traditional Mexican cuisine because it contains ingredients that can be found all over modern Mexico,” Tellez said. “So much of Mexican cooking isn’t written down anywhere, so by going to the Day of the Dead festivities and trying this food, you’ll share a special, genuine connection with the people.”