Pozole Rojo con El Champinon
My family recently enjoyed an interlude in Mexico. My husband and I had frequented different areas of the country for many years before our kids and after having kids (and waiting through the pandemic), we returned last year to start the tradition again. This year, we traveled back to Cancun for the first time in over 10 years. So much has changed (as to be expected after 10 years), but most of the change we saw left us a bit melancholy.
The country has such proud traditions and wonderful culture; it's bright, vibrant and welcoming. We have always enjoyed our time relishing the food and natural wonders. From the Mayan temples in the lush jungles to the turquoise waters of the Caribbean flush with sea life and diversity. We have swam in cenotes and traversed underground caverns. Snorkeled and frolicked on warm sandy beaches where palm trees swayed and the palapas shaded us when the sun was at it's apex in the blue skies. It was always very refreshing to just be in and enjoy the natural beauty that is Mexico.
Sustainability Spotlight: Mexico always will be beautiful, but climate change has affected the country materially. Namely, in the form of sargassum seaweed. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), "sargassum is a genus of large brown seaweed (a type of algae) that floats in island-like masses and never attaches to the seafloor." The algae is unique in that among its leafy appendages, and branches, a round berry-like structure is present which are filled with gas (mostly oxygen) which causes the algae to float. The patches float in large "rafts" and can stretch for miles floating in the upper water column. The algae forms a habitat for fish (some commercially important such as mahi mahi), sea turtles, marine birds, crabs, shrimp and more. Even if / when the algae loses its buoyancy, it will sink to the ocean floor and contribute to the deep-sea wood web by providing carbon energy to fishes and invertebrates.
Despite its beneficial contribution to the ocean environment, the length, width and overall "blooms" of sargassum are washing up on shores of Mexico, the Caribbean islands and even impacting Florida where they have not in the frequency or duration as they have historically. Last month, euronews.com reported that "(a) massive 8,000km long blob of seaweed (was) floating towards Florida, Mexico, and the Caribbean..." and was dubbed "The Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt - a raft of biomass stretching from West Africa to the Gulf of Mexico..." The issue is that currents were / are driving the sargassum onto land and once there, it dries out, decomposes and off-gasses from that decomposition are (in part) sulfuric in nature leading to a rotten egg smell.
So, what's causing the increased patches of sargassum? It's hard to tell since monitoring of the algae didn't begin until 2011, but "(e)xperts say agricultural runoff seeping into the Amazon and Orinoco rivers then flowing out to the ocean could explain the increased growth of the belt on the western side...(since)...according to a 2021 study, sargassum collected in recent years contained nitrogen levels 35 per cent higher on average than 30 years earlier. This was due to sewage and farm runoff." (www.euronews.com). It's also thought that warmer waters would increase the rapid growth of the algae. Warmer waters and more food (nitrogen) are incontrovertible factors to algae growth. Increased use of pesticides and herbicides for farming (fertilizers) and increased methane emissions from green house gas releases through agriculture and industry can certainly be identified as contributors to the increased algae patches.
The focus has been more about the devastation of the beaches from a tourism perspective, but what will these countries do with the decomposing seaweed? If not removed, threatened and endangered sea turtles cannot traverse the beach as hatchlings and run to the safety of the ocean. If not removed, birds who feed from the sandy shores won't have access to food such as snails, crabs or other small sources of nutrients. And then, what can be done with the seaweed? Here's the good news; according to the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), sargassum is being used in the Caribbean as ecoal. "...this alternative biofuel could save many Caribbean forests from being cut down to make charcoal. Sargassum burns cleaner and does not emit much dust or smoke. It also burns longer..."
While humans can be creative and start to adjust to the changes they have imposed on this world (like the increase in sargassum and using it as ecoal), the important part of this discussion should be to reduce the amount of runoff of fertilizers and reduction in green house gases to curb the growth of the algae. This will lead to a more sustainable future than just deciding what we can "do" to alleviate the messes we have made as humans.
So, embark on this traditional Mexican soup knowing that there are ways (like making it vegan - reducing the carbon impact on your choices to include (or in this case not include meat) that you can (no matter where you are), help change the trajectory of our most prized natural areas; like the Caribbean. I hope we can still indulge the beauty and pride that is a part of the Mexican experience when my children have children and we teach them about how important our decisions were to preserving the global environment.
1 tbsp avocado oil
1.5 lbs oyster mushrooms (torn into pieces)
smoked salt (to taste - see recipe)
1/2 red onion (chopped)
5-6 garlic cloves (diced)
1 bell pepper (chopped)
1 zucchini (chopped)
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp coriander
4 cups vegetable stock
1 cup filtered water
2 large serving spoons adobo paste (be sure to use paste, not sauce)
1 tsp vegan bouillon (I used chicken flavored) paste
2 tbsp oregano
(1) 15-oz can of hominy (drained)
(1) 15-oz can fire-roasted diced tomatoes
1 extra large lime (or 2 small) juiced
1 small handful cilantro (chopped)
In a large (5-quart) Dutch oven, saute mushrooms over medium-high heat with some smoked salt until browned and start to "juice" (~4-5 minutes).
Next, add onions, garlic bell pepper and zucchini and saute for ~5 minutes (or starting to brown).
Add cumin, coriander, more smoked salt and mix to coat vegetables for ~30 seconds or until fragrant.
Now, deglaze the pan with stock and scrape up the browned bits.
Add water, adobo paste, bouillon and oregano and stir well; bring to a boil
Add hominy and tomatoes, stir and boil for ~10-12 minutes until vegetables all soften and hominy becomes fragrant.
Turn off heat, stir in lime juice and cilantro and serve
With love and hope for a better future for all of us - Jamie