The quesadilla is a very popular Mexican recipe that is the perfect combination of old world and new world ingredients and preparation techniques.
What is a quesadilla?
A quesadilla is a corn or flour tortilla folded in half, stuffed with various ingredients such as cheese, potatoes, mushrooms, picadillo, chicharrón (pork rinds), brain, or flor de calabaza (squash blossom), and grilled on a comal (flat griddle).
Although it is typically served as a folded tortilla, it can also be prepared with two whole tortillas. However, the most common version using two whole tortillas is called sincronizada, which translates as “synchronised” in Spanish. It is a quesadilla filled with ham and cheese and sometimes chorizo or refried beans.
How to make a quesadilla?
The most common and original version of quesadilla is stuffed with Oaxaca cheese (queso Oaxaca), which is a Mexican string cheese similar to mozzarella, made by the pasta filata (stretched curd) method. The simple version can include a few fresh leaves of epazote (pungent Mexican herb) and strips of peeled chile poblano.
The quesadilla is usually cooked on both sides on a comal until the cheese has completely melted and the tortilla is golden. Quesadillas are typically cooked without any oil or lard, which makes them crispier. They are traditionally served with a combination of green or red salsa, pico de gallo (salsa bandera), chopped onion, or guacamole.
What is the origin of quesadilla?
Quesadillas were developed after Spanish settlers arrived to Mexico in the 16th century. Turnovers (filled pastries) were quite popular in Medieval Spain. Old world ingredients, such as cheese, chicken or turkey were combined with New World foods such as tortilla (tlaxcalli in Nahuatl) to create what is now known as quesadilla.
What is the origin of the word quesadilla? Is there always cheese in a quesadilla?
This is quite a hot topic! Well, a basic etymological study of the word quesadilla would point to the word queso (cheese in Spanish) and the diminutive suffix in dilla (that started to appear in the fifteenth century). More specifically from quesada (quesada pasiega), a type of cheesecake that is typical of the region of Cantabria, in the North of Spain.
But it is a little more complicated than it sounds.
In the Diccionario del Español de México (Dictionary of Spanish of Mexico), published by the College of Mexico, we can read that a quesadilla is a “tortilla of corn or wheat flour folded in half, stuffed with various foods such as cheese, potatoes, mushrooms, picadillo, chicharrón, squash blossom, etc, cooked or fried in a comal”.
It is also stated that the word quesadilla does not come from Nahuatl and finds its origin in the Asturian recipe casadiella, which was a dessert in the form of sweet dumplings made with puff pastry dough mixed with cheese and stuffed with nuts and sugar. The word eventually became quesadilla.
Now, the first document in which the word quesadilla is recorded dates from 1324 in the Catalan publication El Llibre de Sent Soví. Another mention of the word exists in the book L’Opera, by Bartolomeo Scappi, published in 1570. “When the Spanish conquerors arrived in Mexico, they found corn and produced an American version of their quesadillas, which may have been adopted first in Veracruz before moving to the center of the country, where a more cosmopolitan population made it possible for quesadillas to be prepared without cheese”.
The oldest recipe book in Mexico, El Nuevo cocinero mexicano (The New Mexican Cook) in 1888, indicates that a quesadilla may or may not include cheese in its preparation. But before that, in 1831, the cookbook El cocinero mexicano included a recipe for quesadillas de regalo (gift quesadillas) that included aged cheese, as well as cinnamon, sugar, saffron, cloves, black pepper and a little toasted and ground coriander.
José G. Moreno de Alba, a member of the Mexican Academy of the Language, wrote in 1992 a series of articles referring to the Spanish language and its particular use in Mexico (mexicanismos) called Minucias del Lenguaje. In these articles, he described how the term quesadilla has lost aspects of its original meaning. As a result, quesadillas contain cheese in most Mexican states, due to its original meaning. However, in Mexico City, the word has lost most aspects of its original meaning. This explains why quesadillas served in the capital may not include cheese, and the ingredient is only included when requested. Now, you know that a “cheese quesadilla” may not be such a pleonasm!
What are the regional varieties of quesadillas?
These quesadillas are made with flour tortillas to which meat is added (the same one used for the preparation of tacos al pastor), as well as pineapple. Quesadillas gringas are typically made with two tortillas placed on top of each other. The name may come from the white wheat flour tortillas that are used instead of yellow corn tortillas.
They are made the same way as quesadillas gringas but with corn tortilla.
In Northwest Mexico
– In the northwest states of the country, fish or shellfish-based quesadillas are quite popular. They are prepared like fish tacos, in the style of Ensenada, Baja California. They are usually accompanied by sauces, lettuce, onions and guacamole.
In Sinaloa, a Western state of Mexico, there is a special variety of quesadilla called taco gobernador, which consists of a grilled quesadilla made with corn tortilla, which is heated until it is toasted and filled with crushed shrimp.
In Sonora, the Northwest state bordering Arizona, quesadillas are made of corn or flour tortillas that are stuffed with roast beef. They can also be served in a charcoal-grilled tortilla, with melted cheese and beef topped with cabbage, sauces, guacamole and onions.
In Northeast Mexico
In Ciudad Victoria, in the state of Tamaulipas in the Northeast of the country, quesadillas made with flour tortillas are stuffed with different stews are common, such as salsa verde, deshebrada (shredded beef), picadillo (ground beef stew), cochinita pibil (slow-roasted pork) among other fillings. Queso asadero (similar to queso Oaxaca) or Manchego cheese are used. These quesadillas are accompanied by a side of cabbage or lettuce and tomato.
In the Valley of Mexico (around Mexico City)
The quesadillas in the Valley of Mexico area are very popular street foods that are made from raw dough or corn flour. The tortilla is first shaped before adding the ingredients to the cheese that can include potatoes, mushrooms, huitlacoche (fungus also called corn mushroom), sausage, pickled jalapeño, epazote, chicharron (pork rind), beef brain, or picadillo, to name a few. Then, the tortilla is folded in half when it is still raw, and then grilled or fried in a comal.
In Northern Mexico
In the northern states of Mexico there is a variant of quesadilla that is made with unfolded corn tortillas toasted on the coals, on which the cheese and the other ingredients are placed. This variant has different names, depending on the state: vampiros (vampires), piratas (pirates) or chorreadas.
In the Center and South of Mexico
Quesadillas are only prepared with corn tortillas, either blue or yellow corn.
In the United States
The quesadilla in the United States is typically prepared with a large flour tortilla that is filled with melted Cheddar or Monterey Jack cheeses, as well as chicken strips. It is often served with guacamole, refried beans and pico de gallo.
Salvadoran quesadillas have nothing in common with Mexican quesadillas. A Salvadoran quesadilla is a rich, sweet dessert coffee cake that is often found in local panaderías (bakeries). Traditionally, the cheese used for this Salvadoran dessert is unsalted Salvadoran queso fresco, a fresh farmers cheese.
Enjoy this traditional Mexican quesadilla with only cheese, or add jalapeño for an extra kick. If you are looking for a non vegetarian version, then go for quesadilla de carne asada (grilled and sliced beef), quesadilla de camarones (shrimps), quesadilla de jamón (ham), quesadilla de chicharrón (pork rinds), or even quesadilla de sesos (beef or pork brain) for the most adventurous!
- 1 corn tortilla
- 1 oz. Oaxaca cheese (or Mozzarella, Cheddar or Monterey cheese), shredded
- Sliced pickled jalapeños
- Heat a comal or flat cast iron griddle on the stove over medium heat.
- Add the tortilla, then the cheese and a few pickled jalapeño pepper (optional).
- Fold the tortilla in half (in the form of a half moon), pressing the edges to seal.
- Cook for about 3 minutes on each side until golden, and when the cheese melts, turning once.
- Serve with guacamole, pico de gallo and refried beans.