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What is a Quesadilla?

By KD Morgan
Updated May 16, 2024
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A quesadilla (kay-suh-dee-yuh) is a popular savory Mexican turnover, stuffed with a cheese filling. The turnover is grilled or fried, using either flour or a corn tortilla. Served with guacamole and sour cream, this simple unleavened flatbread turnover remains a favorite snack of the Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine.

The true quesadilla is made with masa dough. Masa is prepared from maize blanco (white field corn) that is dried and cured with limewater, after which it is ground into a fine cornmeal. This staple was passed down from the Mayans, Aztecs and a few other advanced cultures of the prehistoric Americas.

The purist prepares the quesadilla as a turnover and differentiate it from the sincronizada, which is made with two flour tortillas with the cheese wedged in between. Traditionally Chihuahua cheese is used, which is a white, mild, Mexican cheese, similar to a Monterey Jack. Chihuahua cheese was first produced by the Mennonite communities in the region of northern Mexico and is also referred to as queso menonita.

In the 15th century, when the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the New World, the thin, flatbread portable pie was already a perfected staple of the Mesoamerican people. The Spanish gave the name quesadilla (little cheesy things) to the delicious dish.

As the Spanish influence infiltrated the New World, other ingredients were added to the cheese quesadilla such as chicken, beef, turkey, seafood and vegetables. The quesadilla evolved into a blend of the Old and New World traditions.

The further south you go, the more complex the quesadilla. Variations use potato and chorizo (pork sausage), Oaxaca cheese (white Mexican cheese with a string-like texture similar to mozzarella), mild to hot chilies, epazote (herb with a pungent flavor similar to a strong anise, fennel, or tarragon), sautéed flor de calabaza (squash blossoms), or huitlachoche (a delicacy made from an ambrosial fungi that grows on the corn blossoms).

The Salvadoran quesadilla is very different from the familiar Mexican cuisine as it uses heavier, dense bread and is served as a dessert with coffee. It is more like a pancake mixture of butter, eggs, flour, milk, Parmesan cheese, sour cream and sugar. The ingredients are baked in a shallow pan for 30 minutes. This savory dish is more common to the Guatemala and southern Mexico region.

Whether you prefer the original, simple cheese quesadilla, the more filling complexities of the Spanish meaty dishes, or choose to make your own creation with stuffing like ham, hamburger, sausage, mushrooms, refried beans, scrambled eggs, or salsa, you will be enjoying a delicious piece of history.

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