There are so many different kinds of quesadillas in Mexico! They may be cooked at home, offered at restaurants, and most frequently, served at small fondas and sold at street stands. The basic elements of this preparation are:
The substrate, from left to right, either from masa (corn dough) or using pre-made corn or wheat tortillas:
The filling, which may be cheese and/or many other flavours (called dobladas in Guadalajara, Jalisco); some vegetarian ingredients include mashed potato, refried beans, squash blossoms, or for a woodsy taste, mushrooms with epazote (photo below, left); in addition to cheese, animal protein choices vary from ground or shredded beef, to pork cracklings, and even brain or beef tripe (pancita, photo below, right):
Finally, the cooking methods include: grilling, either by filling and folding a premade corn tortilla (photo below, left), or forming and partially cooking a flat oval shape with corn dough (photo below, centre) then filling, folding, and finish cooking (photo below, right):
In the United States and Northern Mexico, the most popular is the wheat tortilla quesadilla, also prepared grilled, with lots of cheese (sometimes called burritas in Central and Southern Mexico):
A small amount of oil may be added to the grill, for a crispier, pan-fried finish:
And there are also deep fried quesadillas, so popular in Mexico City (called molotes in Puebla, and empanadas in Southern Mexico), usually made by filling a corn dough (masa) disc or oval (photo below, left) before folding in half, sealing to form a pocket, and placing in the hot oil until golden brown (photo below, right):
Grilled, pan-fried or deep-fried, all are served piping hot, with a nice selection of spicy toppings:
In my next post, look for recipes for some fillings, salsas, and how to make quesadillas from corn dough (masa), both grilled and deep fried.
There is an ongoing debate in Mexico on whether or not a quesadilla must always include cheese. The Spanish word quesadilla may be deconstructed into queso – cheese and illa , the diminutive of the suffix in female form ada – meaning “containing”; a quesada is then something containing cheese, and quesadilla is a small version of it.
Does this mean that a quesadilla should always contain cheese? Not according to the Real Academia de la Lengua Española RAE (Royal Academy of the Spanish Language); in their definition, a quesadilla is:
1. Cierto género de pastel, compuesto de queso y masa.
2. Cierta especie de dulce, hecho a modo de pastelillo, relleno de almíbar, conserva u otro manjar.
3. Tortilla de maíz o de trigo doblada por la mitad, rellena de queso y a veces de otros ingredientes, propia de la cocina mexicana.
Which translates into:
- Certain kind of cake or patty, composed of cheese and dough.
- A kind of sweet, formed as a small pastry and filled with syrup, preserves or other sweet paste.
- A wheat or corn tortilla folded in half and filled with cheese and sometimes other ingredients, characteristic of Mexican cuisine.
In Spain, quesadilla is kind of a thin cake, a sweet confection, sometimes but not always, containing cheese, as the first two definitions assert. The third one, refers specifically to the more cosmopolitan, Mexican use of the name. The RAE has chosen an extremely politically correct approach, being careful to mention both wheat and corn for the wrap, the semi-circular shape of the wrap when folded in half, and equally important, that it is “filled with cheese and sometimes other ingredients.” This statement is so elegantly ambiguous, not specifying if the other ingredients are used as fillings on their own, or in addition to cheese. Almost everyone outside of Mexico City’s metropolitan area will say the correct application is “in addition”, or even declaring them spurious: “if it has other ingredients, it is not a quesadilla, it is a doblada (folded)“; in the capital city, though, cheese is not only just one of many quesadilla fillings, but it is also optional.
I will not try to refute this apparent misnomer because I was born and raised in Mexico City, and to me, and the other 20+ million people there, a quesadilla has always had a broad range of fillings. The dish in itself pre-dates the arrival of the Spaniards to Mexico; filling a folded tlaxcali (tortilla is another Spanish word) with spicy chile or tomato sauces is documented amongst foodstuff eaten my Mexica (Aztec) rulers and nobility in “Los Códices Matrisenses”, considered the earliest version of San Bernardino de Sahagún’s “Historia general de las cosas de la Nueva España” (“General History of the Things of New Spain”). The English translation of the full text “PRIMEROS MEMORIALES by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún – PALEOGRAPHY OF NAHUATL TEXT AND ENGLISH TRANSLATION by Thelma D. Sullivan,” is available online as a free PDF download (click here for link); on pages 201-202, the text, in both Nahuatl (left) and English (right) reads:
Jnic. iiii. parrapho ipan mitoa in izquitlamantli in itlaqual in imauh in tlatoqz yoan
Tlacuelpacholi tlaxcali chiltecpimoli inamic.
tlamatzoali tlaxcali miltomamoli inamic.
Fourth paragraph. In it are told the kinds of
food and drink of the rulers and esteemed
Large folded tortillas with hot chili sauce
Folded tortillas with wild tomato sauce.
 This paragraph comprises a useful listing of some of the most important items of food and drink of the rulers and members of the aristocracy. Sahagun later, in Tlatelolco, collected a somewhat similar but more extensive list that he included as Chapter 13 of Book 8 of the Historia (Sahagun 1950-1982, Part IX [Book 8]: 37-40; 1988, II: 512-517). The richness and variety of the Central Mexican native cuisine at contact is readily apparent from these two listings.
 Chiltecpin: Capsicum microcarpum D. C. (Santamaria 1959: 388).
And considering that farmed animals’ milk and dairy products did not exist in Mexico before the onset of Spanish colonial times in the sixteenth century, those folded tortillas definitely did not contain cheese.
I believe that the filled and folded dough discs evolved like everything else during colonial times, acquiring names and ingredients brought to the colonies: tlaxcali looked to someone like “a small patty” and became a tortilla; cows, goats and sheep were brought over from Europe, cheese was added, and someone thought folded and stuffed tortillas looked like a “quesadilla” (which already could have or not cheese), then the extension of the name probably came organically as the Spanish language mostly replaced Nahuatl, and saying “quesadilla” (at least for the emerging eclectic society) was faster and easier than “Tlacuelpacholi tlaxcali” or “tlamatzoali tlaxcali”.
This argument reminds me of other dishes, such as cheese-less pizza, or famously, “Chilli“, word that simply means “hot pepper”, but nowadays recognized as a Tex-Mex ground beef stew, definitely with no beans in Texas, but with beans, and even other vegetables, in other places. In a nutshell, Texas was part of Mexico until the 19th century, and there were street stands selling Mexican style “Chili con carne” – “Chili with meat” and “Chili con carne y frijoles” – “Chili with meat and beans”; as Texas became an independent nation for a brief time before joining the US, the Texan dish was established, with no beans, as simply “Chilli.” So if there is meat (and sometimes beans) in “Chilli”, I see no problem with a “quesadilla sin queso” – cheese-less quesadilla.
I prefer quesadillas without cheese for fillings such as pancita (beef tripe), but in other cases, especially with vegetables or potato, cheese definitely adds a delicious layer of flavour and texture. In any case, make sure to say “con queso” – “with cheese”, when ordering such quesadillas in Mexico City, but omit the “redundant” request elsewhere, or be prepared for a patronizing look or a subtle “duh” from the server.
This post is dedicated to El Espacio μ, my dear friends from our undergrad years in the Physics program at The National University of Mexico (UNAM). During one of our recent virtual parties, they greatly helped me sort out some of the names and regional idiosyncrasies in this story.