Words & Photos Ricardo Martinez Roa

On the Streets of Mexico City, Quesadillas Rule All

Nov 01, 2016

Walking the streets of Mexico City means experiencing food. The streets of this city always smell of something being cooked. It puts you in contact with so many things to eat, but especially different ways of eating corn—a sacred element-ingredient from the old cultures. To this day, corn is a basic ingredient in Mexican kitchens that respect the traditional recipes of our ancestors.

The most common iteration of corn these days is a tortilla—in combination with cheese, this forms a quesadilla. There are all sorts of quesadillas made with flour tortillas, cheese, and sauces from the south of the US to the south of Mexico, but I wanted to document the way they’re made right in the heart of Mexico. Quesadillas are one of the mainstays of Mexico's street-side stands, helping construct the identity of the city. It’s always curious to see the clash of modernity that is taking over the city juxtaposed with the vibrant street-side businesses.

The quesadilla is a perfect poster child for 'less is more.' As a kid it was common to have this dish because of its simplicity to cook, great for a snack or a whole meal. There is no hunger a quesadilla can’t satisfy. When it comes to the quesadilla there are no rules: no specific meal or hour.

Preserving these kinds of dishes and respecting traditional recipes is a tribute to our ancestors, reminding us as Mexicans of who we are and where we came from.

In Mexico’s capital, it’s easy to find a place to eat quesadillas in Mexico's capital, whether inside food markets or stands on the street. Sometimes the people inside the joint will yell to invite you in by listing the ingredients they have. There are two traditional ways to prepare this dish. One is in a big pan with enough space to heat a sufficient quantity. People sit around this big hot pan and choose their ingredients from little containers, then wash it down with a Mexican soft drink like Mango Boing, my favorite. The other way is to fry the quesadilla: it has the same process, but it’s formed as a patty so when dipped it in oil, the ingredients don’t drain out (this one is my absolute favorite). Every time you smell cooked corn in Mexico City, it’s definitely a quesadilla place.

There are blue, yellow, green, and white quesadillas, depending on the type of corn. To construct a quesadilla, the street vendors first put a raw corn dough tortilla on the comal (pan). After some minutes, when the tortilla is cooked and hot, they add the filling (the diversity of mix-ins is what makes this so delicious): flor de calabaza (squash flowers), huitlacoche (corn mushroom), papa (potato), chicharron (pork rind), hongos (mushrooms), carne deshebrada (shredded beef), pollo (chicken), frijol (beans), rajas (peppers) and of course melted Oaxaca cheese. The quality of the cheese is really important: the flavor and the way it melts defines the texture and freshness of this dish. But it doesn’t end there: the salsas (sauces) are the crown of this dish. Depending on taste, add red or green salsa, and a side of sour cream. Some like to add lettuce and some more cheese for a bit of freshness.

Quesadillas are Mexican through and through—all the people I visited for this essay from all over Mexico City state were so proud about the way they prepare their dough or the kind of corn they use. This dish forms part of the cultural identity in Mexican kitchens and the ordinary life of Mexicans. Preserving these kinds of dishes and respecting traditional recipes is a tribute to our ancestors, reminding us as Mexicans of who we are and where we came from.

There are things that were born onto this planet to stay forever; I think quesadillas are one of them.