In Los Angeles, as the fall season arrives, Alicia Maher knows it’s not truly autumn until the warm, comforting aroma of slow-cooked squash dessert fills her home. This delicious dish is a cherished part of her ofrenda, an altar lovingly prepared to honor her ancestors during Día de los Muertos. This Mexican holiday, celebrated on November 1st and 2nd, is a time when families pay tribute to their loved ones who have passed away. As she lovingly arranges her ofrenda, Alicia reflects on her childhood in El Salvador, where her aunts and grandmother would take her to Tonacatepeque, a municipality of San Salvador, for Día de los Muertos festivities. There, dressed like angels, they would ask for a sweet and memorable treat – ayote en miel.
Ayote en miel is a traditional dessert enjoyed across many Latin American countries during Día de los Muertos. This delectable dish features ayote, a green hard-skinned squash native to Central America, with flesh resembling that of acorn, butternut squash, or Cinderella pumpkin. To prepare ayote en miel, the squash is simmered for hours in panela or piloncillo, unrefined cane sugar brought to Latin America by European settlers. This flavorful concoction is enhanced with spices such as cinnamon, allspice, and cloves. Over time, the squash absorbs the honey-like syrup, resulting in a jammy, irresistible texture.
Ayote played a pivotal role in the diets of Aztec and Mayan cultures. Regina Marchi, a professor at Rutgers University and author of “Day of the Dead in the USA: The Migration and Transformation of a Cultural Phenomenon,” explains that indigenous communities would place the squash on their altars during harvest festivals. This was a gesture of gratitude to their ancestors, seeking guidance and blessings in return. In pre-colonial times, other sweeteners like agave nectar or mashed fruits may have been used in its preparation.
Today, on November 1st, families place ayote en miel, along with other symbolic foods like pan de muerto, on their home altars or the tombstones of their departed relatives. It is believed that the spirits of the deceased return to savor these offerings. At the end of the celebration, these foods are shared with living family members, neighbors, and often donated to those in need.
These cherished traditions have deep roots in Indigenous Latin American cultures. Even as the Spanish sought to convert these communities to Christianity, these customs endured and became part of the All Saints’ Day (November 1) and All Souls’ Day (November 2) celebrations.
However, in El Salvador, a decades-long civil war interrupted these Indigenous traditions. In 1932, the country’s military dictatorship massacred over 30,000 native Pipil people, causing many to conceal their heritage and customs out of fear. It was only after a peace accord was signed in 1996 that people felt comfortable reviving these traditions.
Variations of ayote en miel exist throughout Latin America. In Mexico, it’s known as calabaza en tacha, or candied pumpkin, sometimes served with Mexican crema. In Ecuador, where food blogger Layla Pujol grew up, it’s called dulce de zapallo and is enjoyed year-round, often served with queso fresco or quesillo, a fresh milk cheese similar to mozzarella.
In Guatemala, bakeries start selling ayote en miel the week before Día de los Muertos as the preparations for the holiday commence. Notably, families often exchanged platters of this beloved dessert, a tradition that brought people together and shared the sweetness of the season.
As Día de los Muertos approaches, these cherished traditions remind us that food is not only a source of nourishment but also a powerful link to culture, heritage, and the enduring connection between the living and the departed. Ayote en miel, with its rich history and flavors, is a delightful embodiment of these bonds, offering a sweet and timeless tribute to those who came before us.