We often associate pumpkins with Halloween in the US, but did you know that many varieties of pumpkins have been cultivated in Mexico for thousands of years!? In fact, archeologists have found pumpkin seeds in tombs in Mexico dating back to 7000 BC! They also found evidence that indigenous farmers cultivated the pumpkin from 6000-5000 BC in Oaxaca and Tehuacán in Central Mexico (which coincidentally is also where the first maize was ever cultivated). The pumpkin shell was used as a recipient and cup by the Aztecs and other Mesoamerican indigenous groups, and pumpkin seeds were ground in sauces (such as mole or pepián).
The Aztecs celebrated Mictecacihuatl (Queen of the underworld and afterlife) during their fall festival commemorating the dead- which eventually combined with the Catholic “All Souls Day,” and evolved into the current Day of the Dead celebration. During this fall festival, they cooked the pumpkin pulp in clay pots. This dish- “calabaza en tacha”- is enjoyed by people around Mexico and Guatemala during the fall when pumpkins are harvested. Typically bought in mercados or ferias (fall festivals) to celebrate the Day of the Dead, here is a version you can make at home. It’s a simple, delicious, and nutritious recipe that your kids will love!
1-2 pumpkins that will fit in the pot you are using
piloncillo (dark, unrefined cane sugar)
the juice from 1 orange
optional: butter, cloves, anise seeds, sweetened condensed milk;
Piloncillo is normally sold in Mexico in conical shapes. I ran out of the piloncillo I had brought home from Mexico, but fortunately found that Valentina makes and distributes it in this packaging in the US at local supermarkets. If you cannot find it, you can use brown sugar and molasses (in the US), or golden syrup (in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand).
First, cut the pumpkin into wedges. Normally in Mexico, they leave in the seeds and pulp, but sometimes I remove them to roast the seeds. My daughter also likes me to take out the “strings.”
In a large pot, put in the pumpkin chunks, the piloncillo, and the cinnamon sticks, squeeze the juice out of an orange, and add a couple of inches of water. Sometimes cooks in Mexico add anise seeds and or cloves to the water, and some cooks also put in a couple of pats of butter.
Cover and simmer until the pumpkin is very tender (15-30 minutes- keep checking), spooning the juices over the pumpkin and stirring the slices so they all get down in the syrup.
Serve warm with the juicy syrup, and if you have some on hand, sweetened condensed milk (this is my family’s favorite part!).
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