There is a café in Santa Ana, California, that specializes in foods from above and below the U.S.-Mexico border: Baja California wines and New Mexico-style beef jerky, corn bread made from blue maize and an array of micheladas. The owner’s mother is an immigrant from northern Mexico, and her father is a descendent of the pilgrim William Bradford. Though the café, Alta Baja (“High Low”), is a reflection of her own background, she welcomes requests from customers and, occasionally, from her Mexican-American husband, who happens to be me. For a long time, I had only one. “Delilah,” I’d implore her, “will you make pozole?”
Pozole is a hominy stew that’s been eaten throughout Mexico since pre-Columbian times. When I was growing up, in Anaheim, California, in the nineteen-nineties, Sundays meant giant pots of pork pozole in my family’s kitchen, the broth red and hot with puréed guajillo chiles. During the holidays, we cooked yard-tall vats of it outside my aunt’s house, the better to serve all the cousins who visited. A big steaming bowl, copiously garnished—with shredded cabbage, diced onion, serrano pepper, a squeeze of lime, and a pinch of oregano, and with tostadas on the side for dunking—provided the best possible relief from hunger, cold, or a hangover.
No other vender in the food hall where Alta Baja operates sold pozole, I pointed out to Delilah. Mexicans in the area would surely flock to her for a fix. Delilah was skeptical. For many years, she was a vegetarian, so she never developed a particular fondness for pozole, which typically relies on pork or chicken for its rich flavor. She grew up in Irvine, California, the quintessential Orange County suburb, largely removed from traditional Mexican culture. I was the first person with a Mexican background she’d ever dated. My family immediately liked her but always joked that my wife could stand to be more Mexicana—and I agreed.
But Delilah has always found creative ways to express Mexicanidad on her own terms, and it was no different with pozole. One December weekend, my mom (with me serving as translator and taster) taught Delilah her recipe—how to cube the pork shoulder, how to skim away the scum that rises in the broth after the meat first comes to a boil. Mami explained that Delilah should cook the meat separately from the hominy, which turns the water it boils in a milky white.
Delilah’s pozole débuted on New Year’s Day, 2017, and it became a hit; she began serving it as a special on the last Sunday of each month. But some of Alta Baja’s most loyal customers are vegans, and Delilah has always made sure to offer as many veggie-based menu items as possible. Now those regulars were watching meat eaters slurp up bowls of pozole each month and wanted to know what all the fuss was about. “We need to come up with a vegan pozole,” Delilah said.
At first, the idea seemed preposterous to me. Meat is as fundamental to pozole as cheese is to a quesadilla. The earliest known reference to the stew is in a text by the sixteenth-century Spanish writer Bernardino de Sahagún, who described Aztec nobles enjoying a version made with the flesh of sacrificed captives during feast days. How could a dish with such brazenly carnivorous origins be any good without the unctuousness of animal fat?
Then again, in recent years, chefs have devised plant-based versions of other Mexican favorites, to widespread popularity among Latinx millennials. In Southern California alone, you can find pan dulce (Mexican sweet bread) made from palm oil and soy milk, meatless carne asada composed of perfectly grilled seitan and chili powder, and carnitas cooked with jackfruit, which has stringy flesh that replicates the texture of pork surprisingly well. Why not pozole, too?
I suggested to Delilah that she devise a vegan pozole verde, a chicken-based version of the stew, from the southern Mexican state of Guerrero. Unlike the rojo that I grew up with, with its torrent of fatty, spicy flavors, verde is lighter, more herbaceous, its spiciness tempered with juicy tomatillos.
Delilah was guided in her efforts by one of her Alta Baja staff members, Juana, a native of Guerrero. Juana learned to make pozole from her mother, who frequently sold it at fiestas in their town of Teloloapán. The version Juana and Delilah developed uses extra parsley in place of hoja santa, a large, fragrant leaf that is used in southern Mexican cuisine and can be difficult to find in the States. They also left out the epazote, the trademark herb in pozole verde, which imparts a strong flavor that some people find off-putting. “If we’re going to sell it to Americanos, it should be easy for them to enjoy,” Juana reasoned.
In place of meat, Delilah adds diced summer squash and whatever heirloom beans she has in stock—sometimes creamy mayocoba, sometimes earthy ayocote. The finished pozole verde is splendid—relishy and filling, with a light, complex heat from the addition of seven different varieties of chili. Best of all, it doesn’t weigh you down the way pozole rojo does. Instead of showering it with condiments, I sometimes eat it plain, savoring the delicate flavors.
Delilah introduced her vegan pozole at Alta Baja about six months ago, and it’s already popular. “I didn’t think Americans would like it,” Juana told me last month, as she and Delilah prepped the catering for a Christmas party for high-school teachers. They made a big batch of the vegan pozole and another of pozole rojo. At the party, the pot of green soup went fast, until only the red remained, eventually turning cold.
Vegan Pozole Verde
5 dried pasilla chiles
Boiling water (for rehydrating chiles)
1 large onion
2 green bell peppers
4 cloves garlic
3 large tomatillos
2 jalapeño peppers
1 serrano pepper
3 Anaheim, Hungarian, banana, or Italian peppers
1 cup pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
1 bunch parsley
1 tsp. salt (or to taste)
1 30-oz. can white hominy, drained
1 15-oz. can or 1 ½ cups cooked pinto or black beans, drained
1 zucchini or summer squash, cut into bite-size cubes
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 avocados, sliced
1 cup finely shredded red cabbage
½ cup sliced serrano peppers
½ cup finely diced red onion
¼ cup dried oregano
3 limes, cut into quarters
4 radishes, thinly sliced or julienned
Tostadas or tortilla chips, for dunking
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Place pasilla chiles in a bowl. Cover with boiling water and let stand for five minutes, to rehydrate.
2. Cut onion and bell peppers in half. Place on sheet tray with garlic cloves, tomatillos, and fresh peppers. Roast until soft and beginning to brown, approximately 30 minutes. Remove the vegetables from the oven and let cool for ten minutes.
3. De-stem and de-seed the peppers and pasilla chiles. Remove tomatillo husks. Peel the garlic and onion. Place the pasilla chiles, roasted vegetables, pepitas, and parsley in a blender or food processor and pulse for a minute, until the mixture is coarse and relish-like.
4. Place the blended pozole paste into a medium-sized pot. Add water until the mixture attains a stew-like consistency. Season with salt. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes.
5. Add the hominy and beans and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the zucchini or squash and simmer for 1-2 more minutes, until the mixture is heated through but the squash remains crunchy.
6. Ladle pozole into bowls and top with a generous drizzle of olive oil and slices of avocado. Serve with plates of garnish and tostadas or tortilla chips on the side.