"We honor the dead by feeding their souls with this tamal."
I'm standing next to Gilberto Cetina, Jr. in the tiny kitchen of his popular Yucatán restaurant, Chichén Itzá, located in downtown Los Angeles. I'm hypnotized by a banana leaf-wrapped chicken tamal that he's just pulled from the oven, because it's about the size of a chihuahua.
I've never seen anything this monstrous in the Mexican tamal kingdom. A crispy web has formed along the edges where the achiote-glazed chicken juices have spilled out and caramelized a little bit, and the thing is at least a foot long. "In the Yucatán where I'm from, Dia de Los Muertos is called Hanal Pixan, which is Mayan for something that roughly translates to 'feeding souls.' For us, Dia de Los Muertos exists so we can feed the spirits of our loved ones."
As Cetina finishes explaining the Mayan version of this sacred Mexican holiday, he flips over the tamal, which makes a loud thump, and begins to carefully unwrap the charred leaves as if he's disrobing a mummy. I fall into a trance-like state as I witness the thick steam rise up to give off the smells of toasted corn and
The tamal is called
simply translated to "buried chicken." Pib means "pit oven" in Mayan, and this tamal is the quintessential dish that you should make in it, which becomes is own cooking vessel. According to Cetina, every family has their own rendition of this recipe, but the clan's matriarch typically leads the charge of creating it.
The origins of the dish trace back to Pre-Columbian times, when the Mayans believed that when a person died, it took seven days for their spirit to leave the body.
To help the dead before they left for their journey into the afterlife, the Maya would put a
(corn on the cob) into the mouth of the deceased for sustenance. Over time, the mazorca became a ball of
, which evolved into its current recipe, an exorbitantly seasoned, casserole-like dish that's consumed by the relatives of the lost love one in their honor.
"This tamal is everything to us, but for some people, they are obsessed with it all year," says Cetina. "Some of my earliest memories that I can remember are the ones where I'm eating it, overeating it, and getting sick and tired of it because you often eat it eight times in a row. As soon as the holiday is over, you completely forget about it until the following year."
As the tamal cools, Cetina slices into it like a birthday cake and offers me a slice. The deeply browned edges of the masa colored with achiote are flavored with lard and resemble prized pieces of crispy cornbread scraps you might find on the side of a cornbread skillet. "My wife and I always fight over the corners since they are the best part." And he's right as he hands me a slice, the saucy filling—which consists of corn-thickened chicken stock, tomatoes, and epazote—begins to spill out onto my plate and yet the masa shell remains crispy.
I feel like I'm eating a chicken pot pie for the dead.
Cetina joins me in the middle of Chichén Itzá's dining area for a slice paired with their vegetal agua fresca de chaya, a refreshing beverage made from blending up fresh tree spinach with a touch of sugar. Our neighboring diners ask what we are eating as they enjoy their own panuchos and papadzules, the Yucatán versions of tacos and enchiladas. One even asks if she can have a small bite of it.
Cetina happily obliges and moves his plate closer to her table so that she can easily reach over with her fork. "Mmmmm," she simply murmurs." Cetina's smile grows even larger. "There is an expression in the Yucatán that goes, 'the scent of pib is in the air, so the dead must be coming soon.'"
Since tradition of the tamal has evolved to not only feed the dead, it might be time to change the quote, because the living now equally yearn for the taste of it.