All Saints Day: How Filipinos use food to honour the dead in age-old tradition

The practice of cooking for deceased loved ones on November 1 looks a little different this year, amid the pandemic

MARIKINA CITY, PHILIPPINES  A man places candles on the crypt of a loved one at a public cemetery as All Saint's Day is celebrated on November 1, 2013 in Marikina City, Philippines. As the largest Catholic nation in Asia this public holiday allows Filipinos to visit the family cemeteries for overnight and weekend vigils. They bring candles and flowers and pay respects to departed loved ones. Offices and schools close as the usually silent graveyards become a party with food and music.  (Photo by Dondi Tawatao/Getty Images)
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Today, in the Philippines, thousands of dishes will be cooked affectionately for people who cannot eat them. Every November 1, on All Saints Day, cemeteries across the country are inundated with people carrying the favourite foods of their deceased loved ones. Family and friends of those buried in the graveyards then share these dishes in a charming display of how Filipinos use food to honour the dead. It has been this way for centuries.

This year, however, things will be different. Most public cemeteries in the Philippines will be closed on All Saints Day, also known as Undas, to protect against further coronavirus outbreaks. The nation recorded 380,000 Covid-19 cases as of Sunday, November 1, according to the John Hopkins University's global data. In response, the government ordered most cemeteries to be shut for a week starting from October 29.

A holiday steeped in tradition

Food is offered to departed relatives as others pray while visiting at a public cemetery in Manila's Makati financial district  November 1, 2010. People flocked to cemeteries to spruce up the tombs of their loved ones for the annual celebration of All Saints Day, when millions of Filipinos remember their departed relatives and friends. REUTERS/Cheryl Ravelo (PHILIPPINES - Tags: SOCIETY RELIGION)
Food is offered to departed relatives at a cemetery in Manila on All Saints Day, in this archival photo from 2010. Reuters 

Since Catholicism was introduced to the Philippines by the Spaniards in the 16th century, All Saints Day has been one of the most important annual holidays in the country. Residents visit cemeteries with offerings for the dead – candles, flowers, amulets – and decorate the graves of their loved ones.

Filipino food writer Michelle Melo of the popular blog Dekaphobe, says Undas is an emotional occasion.

“Most Filipino families prepare food to bring to the cemeteries to share among themselves, and some families make an effort to prepare dishes the families’ departed loved ones used to enjoy and serve it on their graves,” she says. “It is a way of honouring the dead and a gesture to show that they are not forgotten.”

My family keeps it simple – we bring food that is easy to serve and not difficult to clean up

All Saints Day, as its name suggests, is originally a commemoration of Catholic saints and martyrs, with its earliest history traced back to the 7th century. That was when the Pantheon church in Rome was dedicated to Mary the Blessed Virgin and all martyrs by Pope Boniface IV. All Saints Day remains a key annual event in Christian countries such as Italy, Germany and France, and is followed on November 2 by All Souls Day, which honours all departed souls.

In the Philippines, the sombre tone of Undas is balanced by the joy of family reunions. These often take place at cemeteries, with some relatives seeing each other for the first time in months, or perhaps even since the previous Undas. For many Filipinos, Undas is a greatly anticipated event, equivalent to Christmas in western countries.

Melo recalls how, as a child, she would look forward to getting money from her elders on Undas, which she used to buy snacks from the food vendors who gather outside cemeteries. They still serve many of the same Filipino treats during the festival. These include calamares (deep-fried squid rings), puto (steamed rice cakes) and cassava cake (a moist dessert flavoured by shaved coconut and cassava).

A foodie feast

Another old favourite during the feast is a dessert called taho, which is silky tofu covered in syrup and tapioca balls. Melo says she still eagerly awaits Undas, when she gets to savour the treats made by the elder female members of her family.

"I have very minimal participation [in cooking for Undas] because the aunts and grandparents are the ones who usually prepare the food," she says. "My family keeps it simple every time – we bring food that is easy to serve and not difficult to clean up."

These include bread, biscuits, rice cakes, barbecued skewers and lumpia, a Filipino spring roll that is usually deep fried and filled with minced meat, onion and carrot.

WASHINGTON, DC- APRIL 15, 2015: Chicken Adobo photographed in Washington, DC (Photo by Deb Lindsey For The Washington Post via Getty Images). *** Local Caption ***  al03se-pinoy-adobo.jpg
Chicken adobo is a dish tied to Filipino culture. Getty Images

Melo says many other Filipino families go to great lengths to prepare extravagant Undas feasts. Among the most popular dishes are pancit – stir-fried noodles mixed with meat and vegetables – and caldereta, a robust stew of beef, pork or chicken.

Not to mention what many people consider the national dish of the Philippines, adobo.

Meaning “marinade” in Spanish, adobo is chicken fried and then stewed in a sauce of vinegar, garlic, black pepper and soy sauce. This slow-cooked chicken, with its mix of savoury and sweet flavours, is then served on a bed of rice. Adobo is one of the staple foods of any Undas party, or indeed any Filipino get-together.

The impact of Covid-19 and cultural changes on celebrations

Relatives eat lunch as they visit the graves of their loved ones at a cemetery in Manila on November 1, 2018. - Millions packed cemeteries across the Catholic Philippines on November 1 to pay their respects to the dead, on a day that mixes somber reflection with the nation's penchant for festivity. (Photo by Noel CELIS / AFP)
Relatives eat lunch as they visit the graves of their loved ones at a cemetery in Manila on November 1, 2018. AFP

While the lack of access to cemeteries will dampen this year's Undas festivities, Filipinos will find a way to mark the day regardless, says another Filipino food writer Gerry San Miguel, who writes the blog Dude4Food. He says many families have adapted to the difficult circumstances by having their Undas gatherings earlier in the year than usual. Food, as always, is the focal point of these events.

But it isn't just the pandemic that is altering the country's relationship with Undas. Over recent decades, traditions have gone into decline, such as the offering of freshly cooked dishes alongside the grave of a loved one.

"Each region and family have their own unique traditions, but the practice of food-centred customs during Undas seems to be waning, at least in more urbanised areas," San Miguel says. "Offering sweet dishes like native rice cakes to the departed, along with candles and prayers, continues to be practised in certain communities. But generally, food is usually prepared to be eaten by the gathering of loved ones in cemeteries."