For the Love of Quesadillas

An exploration on quesadillas as a food for survival.

Quesadillas sin queso en Tepoztlán, 2019.

I still remember how terrible I was at making quesadillas as a child, often burning them to a charr with half-melted slices of thick white cheese. I didn’t understand the science yet. It was the first thing I learned to cook for myself, making one is crucial knowledge in any Mexican kitchen––cook or not. Quesadillas feed us. They are at once a complete meal and an antojito––versatile, adaptable, and made quickly. They’re one of the only dishes that are acceptable to eat all hours of the day, first thing in the morning and at the latest hour of the night––hungover, drunk, high, en ayunas, or just hungry: the quesadilla is always there to quell your hunger. Quesadillas are cardinal to the Mexican diet.  

A recent Instagram recipe reel by a white recipe developer reminded me of this. Watching it sparked emotion. I felt eager to defend it because you see, a quesadilla is not just a quesadilla. And I’m proud of the quesadilla I know and grew up with.

In fact, we feel so strongly about our quesadillas in Mexico, that they are a subject of controversy.

There are two sides of the quesadilla debate: those that believe quesadillas don’t require cheese––namely chilangos (people from Cuidad Mexico)––and those who argue that “queso” is in the name––namely norteños (people like me from the northern states).

David Bowles, expert linguist, and Nahuatl speaker, examines the debate, putting it to rest in his 2019 Medium piece, Mexican X-plainer: Quesadillas

In the piece, Bowles breaks down the etymology of the word “quesadilla,” which against what some people may believe, does not originate nor translate to “quesaditzin” in Nahuatl to mean “folded” or “to fold.” The prefix, “Quesa” came from the Vulgar Latin word, “caseu,” and the suffix “-ada” came from the Spanish word meaning, “to contain.”

“When you stick the -ada ending on ‘queso,’” Bowels writes, “you get ‘quesada,’ which in essence means ‘something full of / made with cheese.’ The -illa ending is a diminutive. So ‘quesadilla’ is literally ‘a little thing made with cheese.’”

Points for the norteños.

However, etymology aside, el Cocinero Mexicano, a culinary dictionary which originally published in 1888, that Bowles also references in his piece, reads otherwise:

“Se llaman quesadillas a muchas en que para nada entra el queso, y solo en la forma o en los dobleces se parecen a las que se hacen con tortilla de maíz.” 

This 133-year-old definition of quesadilla states cheese is not required, but a folded maíz tortilla is. Uuf point taken. Right below that entry, is another term, “quesadilla de prisa,” translating to “quick quesadilla,” that is made with queso fresco or añejo and a small folded tortilla.  

This definition rings truer to what I know, but still not quite it. Though it does make me wonder if my quesadilla could be an evolution of this.

Out of the five savory quesadilla recipes in el Cocinero Mexicano, three called for cheese. Making it clear that officially, cheese does not always beget a quesadilla.

So it seems the chilangos stuck to the more traditional version of the quesadilla, while norteños took the word to mean something more literal. Or perhaps, norteños liked quick snacks more and so the quesadilla de prisa became more embraced. Or maybe chilangos just like being different. Or maybe it has to do with the large swaths of cattle ranches in production in the northern states, making cheese a lot more accessible.

Like Bowels says, “know the place you’re visiting.” In northern cities like Tijuana, Rosarito, and Mexicali, the quesadilla you’ll find is melted white cheese folded with an aromatic, lightly toasted, chewy and soft tortilla de harina. The tortilla de harina, another mark of the north.

Owner of Menos Waste, Maricruz Carrillo, a norteña who is originally from Rosarito, B.C., corroborates with conviction, saying a quesadilla with a tortilla de maiz might as well be called a quesa-taco.

It’s a collective soft spot. Don’t insult our quesadilla.

The way we eat and prepare quesadillas says something about our identity while staying fed, no matter the obstacle.

Author Juan Pablo Villalobos expresses a similar sentiment through a scene in his 2012 novel, “Quesadillas,” where the family of eight, who live impoverished but can still manage to afford cheese and tortillas, huddle around the table for their nightly quesadillas and discourse. The main character describes being at the table trying to snatch a quesadilla for himself between “sixteen hands” in order to eat as, “a savage struggle to affirm our own individuality while trying to avoid starving to death.”

Thus, if you have the agency and resources to make yourself a quesadilla, at the very least, you will surely not starve. Ask my Mexican friends who don’t know how to cook, if they can make a quesadilla––it’s their crowning culinary achievement and bulk of their diet. Quesadillas are survival.

They are adaptable, and like words and survival skills, they’ll change and evolve over time and space, across countries and centuries, morphing with their environment, forged by whatever is available in their immediate surroundings.

They’ll be made with tortilla de maíz, cassava tortillas, tortilla de harina, tortillas de maseca, or heirloom corn––boasting the beautiful vibrant colors only found in nature. They’ll be made with queso Oaxaca, Costco “Mexican” shredded cheese, blocks of Monterey Jack, and even with the abhorred yellow Kraft cheese singles. They’ll be enjoyed with fillings like sauteed mushrooms and squash blossoms, with no mention of cheese. And they’ll also be prepared with queso that is not dairy, but soy, nut, or plant-based, like at Chef Mariana Blanco’s vegan restaurant in CDMX, Los Loosers.

At its essence, the quesadilla is an everlasting reminder and record of who we are, where we are, and where we come from as a people and as individuals. Because wherever Mexicans and Mexican traditions exist––whether in Ciudad Mexico or in Brooklyn, New York–– with whatever resources we have available, and whatever our diets may be, cooked either on a comal, or even in a microwave like Bowles, quesadillas will be had.

And that is something worthy of pride.