SOMETIMES the smell of a steaming, freshly corn-husked tamale is enticing enough to wake the dead.
This time of year, in the mountainous Lake Pátzcuaro region of the Mexican state of Michoacán, villagers prepare a feast for their deceased as part of the annual Day of the Dead celebrations. From the end of October through early November, families dedicate ofrendas (home altars) to the recently departed, setting a lavishly adorned table with the loved one's favorite foods.
In this part of central Mexico, the table is crowded with indigenous classics like corundas, pyramidal tamales filled with salty cheese and poblano pepper; and churipo, a slow-simmered meat and vegetable stew in a ruddy broth of blended chilies, as well as more modern dishes like the regional staple sopa tarasca and the ubiquitous Day of the Dead treat, pan de muertos.
People here believe that the dead are guided by the alluring odors of their favorite foods during the long journey back from the world beyond. Once they arrive, they will share a meal with the living during an all-night vigil in the town cemetery.
The Day of the Dead is not Mexico's answer to Halloween, nor is it a Latin-American interpretation of All Saints' Day. Like Mexican food, itself a complex blend of indigenous and Spanish influences, the Day of the Dead is an inextricable mix of pre-Hispanic spiritualism and post-conquest Roman Catholicism.
The lakeside town of Pátzcuaro is one of Mexico's top Day of the Dead tourist destinations. On Nov. 1, known as the Night of the Dead, ferries crowded with tourists leave its docks for the tiny island of Janitzio in Lake Pátzcuaro, where revelers -- many young and from Mexico City -- party among the marvelously decorated, candlelighted burial plots of the island's small cemetery. Visitors craving a more spiritual scene can still find unspoiled ceremonies in the many small villages ringing the lake.
Pátzcuaro, with about 50,000 residents, is similar in feel to Oaxaca in southern Mexico. It has impressive 16th-century colonial churches, wide plazas and cool stone archways, yet is indelibly influenced by its humble Indian surroundings.
The ancient, soul-satisfying taste of slow-steamed corn tamale is the flavor of Pátzcuaro, and the best tamales are prepared by the Purhépecha peasants who commute daily from outlying villages to stock the town's bustling food market and sell handmade crafts in street-side stalls.
The corunda is the king of Purhépecha tamales. The difference between a corunda and the tamales found elsewhere in Mexico or the United States is that corundas look like pyramids rather than cylinders. They are wrapped and steamed in the fresh, long green leaves of the corn plant rather than dried husks. Seasoned tamale eaters will notice how the fresh corn leaf imparts a slightly smoky, vegetal flavor to the dense dough.
On my most recent visit to Pátzcuaro I was lucky to be accompanied by Cristina Potters, co-editor of Living at Lake Chapala (www.mexico-insights.com), an online magazine, and a 25-year veteran of Pátzcuaro's cuisine. Together we tracked down Efraín Fuentes Montañez (a k a Don Juan), a vendor famous for his savory softball-size corundas.
Don Juan's classic corunda, made from a recipe he says he inherited from ''my ancestors, my relatives, my grandfathers,'' is filled with a square of doblecrema -- a fresh, slightly salty cheese similar to cream cheese -- and strips of the roasted poblano chilies commonly known as rajas.
The corunda is not spicy, but the salsa that accompanies it is piquant.
The simple green sauce, Don Juan says, is made from only two ingredients: tomatillos and chili peron, an intensely spicy chili that is similar in shape (like miniature bell pepper) to the even spicier chili habanero and comes in red, orange or yellow varieties.
Another Pátzcuaro specialty with deep Purhépecha roots is churipo, the hearty beef and vegetable stew in a potent broth of ground, dried chili arbol, chili guajillo and chili pasilla.
Churipo is traditionally a special-occasion dish and in pre-Hispanic times would have been made with fish or wild game like rabbit.
Doña Paca, the restaurant at Hotel Mansíon Iturbe in Pátzcuaro, makes a wonderful churipo with tender veal and distinctive Mexican vegetables like chayote (mirliton, or vegetable pear) and tuna (the fruit of the prickly pear cactus, which doubles as a vegetable when green and sour), along with chunks of carrot, onion and two-inch sections of corn still on the cob.
Doña Paca's churipo is simmered all afternoon and served the following day with a selection of condiments -- chopped white onion, fresh cilantro, lime and powdered chili -- whose supplementary flavors are as important as the stew itself.
Not all of Pátzcuaro's signature dishes have purely indigenous pedigrees. In the mid-1960's a young man named Rafael García shared the kitchen at La Hosteria de San Felipe in Pátzcuaro with the restaurant's owner and his Philadelphia-born wife.
Mr. García said they invented a tomato-based soup flavored with dried chili pasilla and Worcestershire sauce, thickened with corn masa and cream, and adorned with fried tortilla strips and Oaxacan cheese. They called it sopa tarasca, for the Tarascans, as the Spanish conquerors called the Purhépecha. The soup became an instant hit.
Now Mr. García, a smiling-eyed figure known to everyone as Don Rafa, is the owner of Restaurant Don Rafa, the undisputed temple of sopa tarasca in Pátzcuaro.
But nearly every restaurant in town and most restaurants in the lake region now serve sopa tarasca. Some thicken the broth by blending in beans. Some substitute other cheeses.
Don Rafa obviously prefers the original. The trick to his soup's superiority, he says, is the fresh ingredients, which he handpicks from the produce market every morning.
If there is one food associated exclusively with the Day of the Dead -- not only in Pátzcuaro, but all over Mexico -- it is pan de muertos, a moist, eggy cake-bread generously coated with butter and sugar.
Alejandro Rivera Torres, the owner of RivePan bakery in Pátzcuaro, said he bakes and sells thousands of loaves of pan de muertos every season, in the traditional round shape with decorative ''bones'' or in the form of muertitos, little dead people flecked with pink sugar.
On a chilly November night in the pine mountains of Michoacán, a sweet slice of pan de muertos and a steaming cup of atole -- a corn masa drink flavored with cinnamon, vanilla or many types of fruit -- do wonders to warm the souls of the living as they huddle all night in the cemetery sharing favorite traditional foods and fond memories with the spirits of their ancestors. ''There's a mutual nostalgia,'' Ms. Potters explained. ''The living remember the dead, and the dead remember the taste of home.''