Tuesday, April 16, 2024

To cheese or not to cheese: What’s in a quesadilla?

If there’s one thing that sets Mexico City and its surroundings (including México state) apart from the rest of the country, it’s the never-ending debate about whether or not quesadillas should be filled with cheese.

Being from Guadalajara, I grew up eating quesadillas the only way I knew them: a tortilla folded in half and filled with melted cheese. 

Quesadillas are a product of the syncretism between pre-Hispanic cultures and their conquerors. (Wikimedia Commons)

Whether at a restaurant or taquería, asking for a quesadilla required no further explanation beyond the type of tortilla: corn or flour. 

But apparently, in Mexico City, you have to elaborate

When I first ordered a quesadilla at a taquería in the capital, I was bewildered when the waiter replied, “¿Con queso o sin queso?” meaning “With cheese or without cheese?” 

My brain kind of froze, and I didn’t know what to say. 

“Isn’t it obvious?” I thought, “The filling of the quesadilla is implied in its name!”

The waiter then interrupted my thoughts by enlisting an array of fillings, with or without cheese, for the quesadilla. 

A cheese hamburger, according to chilangos. (BuzzFeed)

To explain why many of us argue quesadillas should include cheese, let’s go back to basics. 

The origin of the word quesadilla

The term quesadilla combines two words: queso (cheese) and the suffix -illa. The latter, unlike popular belief, doesn’t derive from the word tortilla.

Quesadilla was used in Spain to refer to a pastry. The word is derived from quesada, a Spanish pastry containing cheese. The suffix illa indicates a diminutive form or a smaller version of the pastry, specifically a small cheesecake.

Thus, since quesadilla originally referred to a sweet dish that included cheese, it is reasonable to assume that Mexican quesadillas require a tortilla to be filled with cheese. 

However, the chilangos (from Mexico City) insist the cheese is optional.

An intensifying debate in social media

While the debate has existed for decades, social media has made it even more evident. As is typical with topics like these, there is an impressive array of memes circulating on social media, poking fun at the quarrel. 

A cheesecake, according to chilangos. (BuzzFeed)

The debate has even reached Mexican TV. 

In an episode of MasterChef México, two contestants were asked to prepare a quesadilla with mushrooms. 

The contestant from México state prepared a quesadilla without cheese stuffed only with mushrooms. The other chef, originally from northern Mexico, prepared a quesadilla with cheese and mushrooms. 

The debate over the quesadilla’s filling took up a good part of the program. Everyone except those from Mexico City and its surroundings argued that a quesadilla needs cheese. 

Neither the contestants nor the jury could reach an agreement. However, the jury (which one would assume were all from the Valley of Mexico) chose the quesadilla without cheese as the episode’s winning dish.  

What does the Royal Spanish Academy say?

Spain’s version of the Oxford English Dictionary, the Royal Spanish Academy (RAE) defines the Mexican quesadilla as a corn tortilla stuffed with cheese “or other ingredients.”

However, many consider the RAE to be wrong. 

In 2016, Ricardo Mendoza Blancas submitted a change.org petition, asking the RAE to modify its definition of the quesadilla to specify that tortillas should include cheese.

In an interview with the BBC, Mendoza said at the time that it was clear the name quesadilla indicated it had cheese in it, “and only one state out of 32 of the republic is in favor of it not containing cheese.” 

Thus, he said, “I have decided to launch this petition so that the RAE returns to the true meaning, and above all, logical concept of the word quesadilla.” 

Whether it was due to disagreement with his position or to a lack of publicity, the petition only got 81 votes. 

A map showing the places where the quesadilla does not include cheese. (BuzzFeed)

When did quesadillas stop having cheese? 

In his book Minutiae of the Language, language historian José G. Moreno de Alba points out the semantic shift — i.e., a change in a word’s meaning over time — that has unleashed this heated but friendly debate between Mexico City and the rest of the country. 

In his book, Moreno wrote, “While there are still cheese quesadillas in this capital, there are also all kinds of fillings: picadillo, huitlacoche, pumpkin flower, brains, potatoes, etc.” 

“Evidently, there has been a semantic shift, not at all uncommon in the language, in the meaning of the word quesadilla, which no longer necessarily designates something that contains cheese — as its name seems to indicate — but another type of filling,” Moreno explained. 

“The quesadilla has become a generic term for all cases in which a tortilla bends,” linguist Luis Fernando Lara added to the debate in 2016, in a video recorded for the Mexican Academy of Scientists and Artists, the Colegial Nacional.   

An obvious quesadilla, containing cheese. (Wikimedia Commons)

However, it is still unclear to me (and most Mexicans) what differentiates a quesadilla of pumpkin flower without cheese from a taco of pumpkin flower. 

I guess we’ll never know. 

Sincronizadas, gringas and beyond quesadillas 

If you thought the debate over the content of a quesadilla was difficult to understand, let me tell you, it doesn’t end there. 

Indeed, the quesadilla matter is complex. 

In Mexico’s northern and western states, two tortillas with cheese and ham in the middle are not quesadillas but sincronizadas. If the quesadilla has pork or beef instead of ham, it’s called a gringa. But if the meat and melted cheese are served on top of a toasted tortilla (like a tostada), it’s a volcán.

And if you move down to southern Mexico, a quesadilla more greatly resembles an empanada than a traditional corn tortilla quesadilla. 

Whatever the flavor or shape, these dishes, no matter what they’re called, only add up to the richness and diversity of our culture and cuisine. 

And while I feel incredibly proud of this assortment, I will forever defend the original notion of a quesadilla con queso.

Gabriela Solis is a Mexican lawyer turned full-time writer. She was born and raised in Guadalajara and covers business, culture, lifestyle and travel for Mexico News Daily. You can follow her lifestyle blog Dunas y Palmeras.

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