Bread of the DeadMexico's Day of the Dead
Photograph by John and Lisa Merrill, Corbis
It's not just the living that feast at a Día de Los Muertos celebration-the dead have appetites, too. Long ago, the Catholic All Saints and All Souls Days merged into a cultural event known as Day of the Dead. From northern Mexico to the Yucatán states, the living commemorate deceased ancestors with symbolic offerings, from sugar skulls, tamales, liquors, and marigolds to pan de muerto (bread of the dead), loaves baked in the shapes of humans and animals. These tasty gifts can be eaten once the spirits have had their fill.
HákarlIceland's Thorrablót (Mid-Winter Festival)
Photograph by Emmanuel Dunand, AFP/Getty Images
Although Iceland's traditional midwinter festival dates only to the 19th-century, it honors the golden age of Icelandic history and references pagan sacrifices to Norse gods and spirits. Fittingly, the fete's key food calls upon celebrants to sacrifice their taste buds for the sake of tradition. Hákarl is shark meat buried in gravel to remove moisture, fermented and cut into strips and hung to dry. The process takes several months and results in a pungent dish that reeks of fish and ammonia. Fortunately, copious amounts of the aquavit brennivín are usually on hand to aid digestion-and embolden the squeamish.
Moon CakesChina's Mid-Autumn Festival
Photograph by Zhang Jiancheng, Xinhua News Agency/Eyevine
Moon fans cast their gaze skyward during the Zhongqiu Festival, a mid-autumn celebration of lunar worship tied to the mythical moon goddess of immortality from Chinese legend. But to gourmands—or just folks with a sweet tooth—the annual event is also called the Moon Cake Festival for the golden pastries filled with lotus-seed paste (or other sweet pastes) that portend good fortune. These four-inch-wide cakes symbolize the glowing moon and are imprinted with characters for longevity and harmony.
Photograph by Owen Franken, New York Times
Festive dishes—and the donation of food parcels (mishloach manot) to the poor—mark one of the most boisterous feasts in the Jewish faith. Purim celebrates the deliverance of the Jewish people from extermination in the Persian Empire in the fourth century B.C. Triangular pastries called hamantaschen (oznei haman in Hebrew) are sweet cookies filled with poppy seeds, fruit preserves, prune, nut, date, apricot, chocolate, and other sweet surprises.
King CakeMardi Gras
Photograph by Judi Bottoni, AP
It's what's inside this icing-topped, twisted brioche—sugar-sprinkled with the Mardi Gras colors of green, purple and gold—that makes this Carnival treat such a crowd-pleaser. Named for the biblical three kings, this seasonal sweet is associated with pre-Lenten bacchanalia. In the most traditional cakes, a tiny porcelain trinket is baked with the dough. A crowned king, a baby doll, and a gilded bean are a few of the forms this good-luck charm can take.
Besan BurfiIndia's Diwali
Photograph by Rajesh Kumar Singh, AP
India's five-day festival of lights is a kaleidoscope of colors, flavors and social gatherings. Observed in Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism between October and November, the event is illuminated by the lighting of small oil lamps and celebrated by the sharing of sweet snacks. Besan burfi are fudge-like biscuits made of chickpea flour, ghee, sugar, and cardamom, topped with pistachios or other nuts.
KahkEgyptian Eid al-Fitr
Photograph by Kahled Desouki, AFP/Getty Images
These simple Egyptian powdered sugar-topped nutty cookies are the edible essence of Eid al-Fitr, the three-day Muslim festival that marks the end of Ramadan and of a month-long daytime fast. Family gatherings and feasts mark the holiday, with kahk supplying a steady dose of sugar to energize the revelers. Other Islamic and Arab nations bake flavorful variations on kahk, which are presented as celebratory gifts and devoured on sight.
HaggisScotland's Burns Night
Photograph by Gary Doak, Alamy
A savory pudding cooked in a sheep's stomach hardly seems like a fitting honor for the national poet of Scotland, but celebrants of a Burns Supper would disagree. The annual dinner, held on January 25 (Robert Burns' birthday), commemorates the life and work of the bard, with speeches, toasts, readings of his poetry ("Address to a Haggis," among his poems) and an elaborate presentation of haggis—sheep's heart, liver, and lungs minced with onion, oatmeal, and spices and simmered in the aforementioned stomach. Scotch whisky is on hand, naturally.
Pastelitos del 25 de MayoArgentina’s May Revolution
Photograph by Enrico Fantoni, Hollandse Hoogte
Fried cookies: a revolution in the kitchen and a revelation on the palate. Not for the calorie-counters, these wonton-like puff pastries are wrapped around a heart of quince paste, fried, drizzled with sweet syrup, and sprinkled with multicolored nonpareils or sugar. The patriotic pastries commemorate the political events of May 25, 1810, which set Argentina on a path to independence from Spain. Locals devour them by the dozens each Independence Day, often accompanied by a cup of steaming maté.
Banh Chung/Banh DayVietnamese Lunar New Year (Tet)
Photograph by Chitose Suzuki, AP
Celebrating Vietnam's most important holiday requires a hopeful outlook—Tet marks the arrival of spring-and a strong appetite. Celebrated the same day as the Chinese New Year, Tet is a time of family reunions and feasts. Roasted watermelon seeds and dried candied fruits are typical small bites, but rolls of sticky rice and meat or bean fillings (wrapped in leaves) are the ultimate Tet food. These banh chung (square packets, which symbolize Earth) and banh day (round packets, which represent sky) are figurative and flavorful foundations of the feast.
Shop National Geographic