What Do Ghosts Eat?
Spirits from around the world have tastes for tamales, red Fanta, fresh fruit, and more.
The sepulcher where my great-grandparents rest in the countryside of Uttaradit province in Northern Thailand always had a specific smell. It’s the mingling of glowing incense paired with the greasy scent of whole-roasted Hainan chicken, pungent and spiky jackfruit, and crispy pork belly. Whenever we make our way to Thailand, and specifically to the sleepy province where my grandmother grew up and where my great grandparents’ bones were stored, it is mandatory we visit their gravesite. They’ve been waiting years for our visit—and they’re hungry.
“In my own personal experiences with family members, Wat Thai, or in Thailand, I have typically seen individuals leave rice [or] sticky rice, fruits—particularly bananas, oranges, or coconuts, water, alcoholic beverages, and red Fanta for spirits and altars,” explained Pahole Sookkasikon, whose doctoral degree focused on Thai America, diasporic popular culture, and gender and sexuality. “The use of red Fanta is a more contemporary and recent trend. The soft drink provides a humane substitute for antiquated forms of sacrifice and the ritual use of animal blood.”
That’s right—one of the most popular soft drinks in Thailand isn’t consumed by the living, but left in spirit houses and on altars for the dead.
Outside of the United States, the relationships the living have with the dead are often less scary than in horror movies. Instead, they’re intertwined with everyday life—an understanding that all living things must eventually die, but life can still be extended and celebrated through fond memories and rituals, including leaving food out for deceased relatives and other specters.
The ancient Egyptians buried their dead with meats and wine so the journey to the afterlife would be less daunting. In countries across East and Southeast Asia, candy and sweets are left out during the ghost month to feed wayward souls looking to peacefully transition to the next phase of their life. Obon is a festival in Japan to celebrate and pay respect to the lives of ancestors that have left Earth. The ritual includes eating bowls of somen—as the noodles serve as a rope to help the dead carry their belongings to the next life—and building cucumber and eggplant figures that symbolize a horse and cow, both of which will also assist in carrying possessions.
In Thai culture, spirits and ghosts are two different beings. Some spirits may be referred to as chao tin, a presence that protects and ensures the safety of the environment and people who live where they watch over. There are also different types of ghosts in Thailand—the ghost of a woman who lives in a banana tree, Nang Tani, or the ghost of a woman who died alongside her baby in a difficult childbirth, Mae Nak.
“Ghosts and spirits in Thai culture all have different appetites and tastes,” Sookkasikon said. “Not all ghosts eat the gifted traditional fare. In Thai folklore, there are spirits who were cursed when they were human, subjugated to haunt the earth and live off blood, internal organs, raw meat, or feces to satisfy their superimposed gluttony.” Clearly, what food you offer ghosts and spirits can vary widely—depending on how they lived and how they died.
For Consuelo Flores, cooking for her loved ones, especially on Dia de los Muertos, makes her feel connected to them despite growing up Catholic. “Day of the Dead was a celebration considered pagan by many Catholics in Mexico and my mother was extremely Catholic, she said. “And because my mom was so Catholic, we didn’t really have a lot of indigenous-based cultural celebrations.” So when Flores got older, she decided to explore her own heritage and learn about the Day of the Dead traditions.
Flores got involved with Self Help Graphics, a Los Angeles-based organization that has been hosting celebrations of Dia de los Muertos for more than 45 years. This year, Flores is an exhibiting artist in Self Help Graphics’ Ofrendas 2020 virtual show—her work is that of a giant marigold tree that carries images of those lost in the COVID-19 pandemic, a commentary on senseless death.
She’s had a lot of experience preparing her installation. Throughout her home, Flores has altars, big and small, that she leaves up during the year. There are candles, photo frames, and little knick-knacks that serve as small memorials. During the Day of the Dead, she cooks and leaves offerings at these altars.
“For my mom, I tend to cook the more traditional foods that my mom made,” she said. “Because they are so aromatic, when I do cook them I know she’s here. I start having this overwhelming sense of memory and connection. I remember conversations or little sayings that she would say. There’s a whole sort of a memory connecting transcendence between the living and the dead.”
Aromatics are a significant part of celebrations for Day of the Dead. “It was all about smell,” Flores explained. “The marigold is a very pungent smell and it’s a bright color [that helps spirits find their way home]. The incense is copal, it’s a very intense scent. You had the moles, with the peanuts and the chocolate and the chile. You had the tamales. You had a lot of very aromatic foods.”
"There’s a whole sort of a memory connecting transcendence between the living and the dead."
Across the world in South India, food isn’t left on altars, but instead sprinkled outside for living beings: crows.
“For my South Indian Tamil family, customs are that [we] generally offer rice, a type of dal, and ghee for crows before a meal,” said Vignesh Ramachandran, who developed Red, White, and Brown Media. “The belief is that ancestors [arrive] in the form of crows.”
When crows peck at the food provided for them, it is believed to indicate that ancestors are fulfilled and at last at peace. Some simply offer rice and dal, while other families cook feasts of their loved ones’ favorite dishes.
Ramachandran is second-generation Indian American and grew up in Colorado. His family hasn’t always held steadfastly to this practice over the years. “At times we’ve left food out, [we’re] not sure if crows actually come eat it or it’s the squirrels and field mice here.” Regardless, it’s really about the thought.
Further east, the Hungry Ghost Festival is a month-long celebration observed in Hong Kong, Vietnam, China, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, and more. Natasha Cheng, who was born and raised in Hong Kong, has been leaving food out for family members for as long as she can remember.
“I think because Hong Kong has been so colonized, it’s only really the older generation that celebrates the festival because it’s not an official holiday,” she said. But there are still many ways in which the living connect with the dead—and during the month of July, you’ll be able to see the small fires that serve as a thread to the next life. “We burn money for the deceased to spend in their universe. Some people also burn ‘goods,’ like cardboard cars and houses and handbags.”
And, of course, food completes the ritual. “My ancestors get roast chicken, a small plate of veggies, and a bowl of rice,” Cheng said. “We also leave out chopsticks and a chopstick holder that are neatly placed.” Once the food is arranged and the offerings have been burned, the family members bow and ask for blessings—to keep the remaining family safe, to ask for good grades, and to request continued success in life.
Throughout the world, this arrangement—the feeding of ghosts and spirits—is one that helps both the living and the dead. If the dead really are hungry, they’re being thought of and fed—often with their favorite foods and liquor. If the living have guilt or longing for their deceased loved ones, they have space to memorialize and honor them.
“If the spirits are happy,” Sookkasikon said, “then we and those around us benefit from that happiness.”