Pumpkin in Syrup – A Sweet Offering for the Day of the Dead

In pre-Hispanic times, the Mexica commemorated the dead during their summer months around July and August; the offerings included elements of Nature, such as fire, flowers, and part of the harvest, which in those regions of Central and Southern Mexico consisted of chili (today known around the world as: chiles, chilli, capsicum, paprika, peppers, guindilla, etc.) as well as corn, beans and squash (the well-known “three sisters” crops, all native to the Americas).  Mictēcacihuātl, also known as “The Lady of the Dead”, was the female deity of the Mexica pantheon dedicated to guard the bones of the deceased in the underworld; she was said to come to the dimension of the living during this time.  With the arrival of the Catholic church not long after the Spanish conquest,  the angst provoked by these ancient rituals was placated with great success – during the native population’s conversion process – when combined with the observances of two days dedicated to the souls of the deceased in the Catholic calendar: the feast of All Saints, also called All Hallows’ day (November 1st) and All Souls’ day (November 2nd). To prioritize the Catholic dates, the Mexica month-long summer celebrations were also moved to coincide with these two days.  Now many families in Mexico and Central America set-up offerings with a fusion of pre-Hispanic and Christian elements, in honour of their beloved deceased.  The cooking and setting-up takes place at the end of October, continues with the observation of the feast of “Todos los santos” (All Saints’) on November 1st, and concludes with praying for, and visiting with, “los fieles difuntos” (the faithful deceased) on the very famous “Día de los muertos” (Day of the Dead), on November 2nd.

This change of season brought winter squash into the scene as a central motif in Day of the Dead offerings; since it is customary to include something sweet, “Calabaza en tacha” – a syrupy treat of winter squash (such as pumpkin) and spices – became a traditional dish to include in offerings, and to enjoy at home during this season.  In Mexico, the most popular variety of winter squash for this recipe is calabaza de Castilla, but from American influence in recent years, the celebration of All Hollows’ Eve (October 31st, AKA Halloween) has made available many party and decoration supplies: vampire fangs, cobwebs, seasonal candy, and the classic orange-skinned pumpkins.  Although the big Jack o’ lantern ones are usually too watery and stringy for the kitchen, the small “sugar pumpkins” or “pie pumpkins” are ideal for this recipe.

Pumpkin in Syrup – Calabaza en tacha

Printable recipe: Pumpkin in Syrup


Pumpkin, such as pie pumpkins, or de Castilla
Optional: 1 sweet potato, 2-3 guavas, 1 orange
For every 4 cups of produce:
1 ½ cups brown sugar (or 2 cones of piloncillo)
1 stick cinnamon
2 cloves
1 cup water

Wash all produce.  Cut pumpkin into 3-inch pieces; remove seeds and stringy flesh (optional). If using: peel sweet potato and cut into 2-inch chunks; quarter guavas; cut orange into wedges, skin on. (I had a couple of pie pumpkins; I washed and sliced one and got about four cups.  I usually remove the seeds to roast separately, and leave the stringy flesh on; this time I did that for half, then left the seeds on for one quarter, and removed seeds and strings for the other quarter, to compare):

sliced pumpkin

Measure and place brown sugar, water, cinnamon and cloves in a large pot:

dissolving sugar with spices

Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally until the sugar is dissolved.  Arrange reserved produce in pot, with skin sides down; for second and subsequent layers, place skin facing up:

second layer upside down

Cover and cook for 15 minutes; check doneness with a fork. Increase cooking times in 10-minute intervals, until all the produce is tender, moving bottom pieces to the top, if needed:

chequing for doneness

Carefully transfer fully cooked produce to a serving bowl or container; reserve. Continue cooking liquid, uncovered, for about 10 minutes, until syrupy and slightly thick; discard cinnamon and cloves and pour syrup over reserved produce, to coat. Serve warm or at room temperature:

calabaza en tacha
It turned out very nice, but I thought the seeds did not add anything to the dish. I made another batch with half of the second pie pumpkin, removing seeds and leaving the stringy flesh intact, and adding one sweet potato:

pumpkin and sweet potato

I followed the rest of the recipe as before:

sweet potato and pumpkin in syrup

Yum! I really liked the addition of the sweet potato.  This is a really sweet treat, and I liked it as it was, but I can see why some people would include guavas or oranges, to add a tangy note to the dish.

FUN FACT: Tacho is the name of a tank used in sugar mills for the production of granulated sugar and molasses. Although nowadays most of the process takes place under vacuum, in the olden days, tachos were large cauldrons with a conical shape; since de Castilla pumpkins have a very hard skin, these cauldrons were also used to cook them whole, then sliced once the skin was softened, and hence the name “en tacha.”

I am joining What’s for Dinner? Sunday Link-up #172, with gracious hostess Helen @ The Lazy Gastronome.

This Mexican sweet plate goes great with this week’s theme at Tummy Tuesday; hostess Mary @ Cactus Catz is sharing some pics from her visit to Guadalajara Fiesta Grill in Tucson, AZ. Yummy Tummy Tuesday!

I am bringing my recipe to Fiesta Friday #295 with Angie @ Fiesta Friday, co-hosting this week with Mollie @ Frugal Hausfrau.

24 thoughts on “Pumpkin in Syrup – A Sweet Offering for the Day of the Dead

  1. do you think it would work as well with kabocha, Japanese squash? I think it’s kind of sweet too and seems to be in the store most of the year these days. I’m not really sure what sugar pumpkins are but I’ll check out Sprouts next time I’m there. They seem to have a greater variety of vegetables than most grocery stores here. The recipe looks really delicious and looks like it’s right up my alley


    1. Sugar pumpkins look like smaller versions of the bright orange Halloween pumpkins, also sold as “cooking pumpkins” or “pie pumpkins”; I usually see them only in the fall. I think kabocha will work, who knows, it might be even better at keeping its shape while stewing. Let me know if you get to try it!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What an amazing transformation of that pumpkin! I never would have thought of pumpkin cooked like that tho we often cook acorn squash with sugar in the midwest. It was interesting to read about all the changes in your Day of the Dead. Our Irish & English holidays were changed, too. Probably everyone’s was to fall in line with the Romans and the Church.


    1. Yes, many ancient cultures were assimilated, even the Iberian peninsula; Spain went through 300 years of Muslim rule as well, so Mexico has Latin and Middle Eastern influences from its Spanish colonial times. Thank you for your comment, Molly! Do you have a recipe for the sweet acorn squash?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. We usually eat it as a side dish and it’s ridiculously easy. Just cut the acorn squash in half, the long way so both sides are equal. Scoop out the seeds and sprinkle with a little salt if you want, then add as much brown sugar over the cut edge as you want. Usually you put a bit more in the center where it will melt and turn to caramel. Bake around 350 F for about 45 minutes or so, till tender but still holding together.


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