A Sweet Squash Offering for Día de los Muertos

It’s not fall for Alicia Maher until she smells the warm spices from her slow-cooked squash dessert at her home in Los Angeles.

As she sets up her ofrenda, an altar to honor her ancestors, she thinks about her childhood in El Salvador, where her aunts and grandmother took her to Tonacatepeque, a municipality of San Salvador, for Día de los Muertos. She and other children dressed like angels and asked for ayote en miel, that squash dessert she now cooks at home.

Recipe: Ayote en Miel (Squash With Spiced Syrup)

“This was our candy,” said Ms. Maher, the author of “Delicious El Salvador.”

Ayote en miel is served throughout many countries in Latin America, often during Día de los Muertos, a two-day holiday that is celebrated on Nov. 1 and 2. The ayote is a green hard-skinned squash that is native to Central America. Its flesh is similar to that of an acorn or butternut squash or a Cinderella pumpkin. For ayote en miel, it is cooked for hours in panela or piloncillo, unrefined cane sugar, an ingredient that was first cultivated in New Guinea and brought to Latin America by Europeans. Spices like cinnamon, allspice and cloves are added, and, over time, the squash absorbs the honey-like syrup to create a jammy texture.

Ayote was a staple in Aztec and Mayan cultures, said Regina Marchi, a professor at Rutgers University and the author of “Day of the Dead in the USA: The Migration and Transformation of a Cultural Phenomenon.” Indigenous people put the squash on their altars during their harvest festivals in exchange for their ancestors’ guidance and blessings. Before colonization, they might have prepared it with other sweeteners like agave nectar or mashed fruits.

Today, people will place ayote en miel, along with other foods like pan de muerto, on their home altars or at the tombstones of their relatives on Nov. 1 for their ancestors to enjoy. At the end of the celebration, those foods are eaten by living family members and neighbors or donated to those in need.

Traditions like these were so foundational to the culture of Indigenous Latin Americans that even after Spaniards began to convert people to Christianity these customs endured, commemorated during the Catholic All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls’ Day (Nov. 2).

But many of these Indigenous traditions were interrupted in El Salvador because of a decades-long civil war. In 1932, more than 30,000 native Pipil people were massacred by the country’s military dictatorship, which led some to conceal their heritage and customs out of fear. When a peace accord was signed in 1996, many felt more comfortable celebrating again.

There are many variations of the ayote en miel across Latin America. In Mexico, the dish is called calabaza en tacha, or candied pumpkin. In some regions, it is served with Mexican crema.

In Ecuador, where the food blogger Layla Pujol grew up, the dish is called dulce de zapallo. It’s served year-round as a dessert in some restaurants, but is more commonly enjoyed as a sweet treat on special occasions, like when guests come over, or given as gifts. There, it’s often served with queso fresco or quesillo, a cheese made of fresh milk that is similar to mozzarella.

Bakeries in Guatemala begin selling the dessert the week before Día de los Muertos, as people begin to prepare for the celebrations on Halloween. But Amalia Moreno-Damgaard, an author of multiple cookbooks, remembers her mother and aunts taking orders from friends and family and making platters of the dessert to give away. In Guatemala City, it was more traditional to get the prepared ayote en miel from a good cook, she said.

“This is a favor, an extension of friendship,” Ms. Moreno-Damgaard said.

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