For all of those Mexicophiles out there, you probably already know that the Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) festival is approaching at the end of October. In fact, it’s a days-long celebration, with lots of dancing, music, and face-painters, all in honor of the dead that return for a brief period to be with their relatives.
However, it was the Spanish conquistadors that shifted the festivities to coincide with Halloween (aka All Saints Day, a day of Catholic remembrance of the deceased).
Originally, the Aztecs celebrated their “great feast of the dead” (called Xocotlhuetzi) in present-day July/August, offering to their deities seasonal native crops such as beans, corn, and pumpkin. The pumpkin -more commonly known as Cushaw squash and specifically Cucurbita argyrosperma (from Latin, “silver-seeded gourd”), was at that time prepared with honey in a fire pit.
When the Spanish Queen Isabel of Castile (Castilla) tried the pumpkin for the first time, it became a hit, even adopting one of her titles as its name– calabaza de castilla.
Isabel…that name sounds familiar. In short, she was the queen of Spain when Columbus set sail for the western Atlantic. Along with Spanish marauders, Columbus took sugar cane to the Caribbean, which eventually made it to Mexico in the early 1500s. Now that we’ve got our two main ingredients, let’s explore the dessert du jour, calabaza en tacha.
Whereas calabaza refers to pumpkin, the tacha is a bit more confusing. Formally, tacha means blemish, or tack (as in thumbtack). To get more esoteric, a tacha is another name for a pot that is used to boil certain foods.
Water and cinnamon (cinnamon is actually from Sri Lanka) are first boiled in the pot, then a heaving mass of piloncillo (unrefined brown sugar) gets added. Thereafter, the only must is the pumpkin, and typically its seeds. The version I tried, at the Mercado de San Juan in Mexico City, was a real treat, counting sweet potato (camote) and guava (guayaba) as bonuses. Cloves are often added near the end of the preparation.
Calabaza de tacha is a delicious blend of autumnal, international, and tropical flavors with a touch of local history that helps keep Mexico among my top spots for culinary travels.