Wild, Young, and Green: How Quelites Helped Me See Myself in Vegan Mexican Cuisine

published Sep 15, 2022
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Huauzontle fishless tacos being prepared. Squash blossoms dipping into batter for frying.
Credit: Photo: Yudi Ela Echevarria; Food Stylist: Ashley Nevarez; Prop Stylist: Nidia Cueva

Qué bonito es el Quelite
Bien haya quien lo formó
Que por sus orillas tiene, de quien acordarme yo

How beautiful is the Quelite
Laud to its creator
That through its ruffled edges, myself I do remember 

El Quelite by Hermanos Zaizar

The last time I visited Ciudad Mexico was my first. I was finally visiting my dad in his hometown and during my stay he took me on a quick trip to Cuernavaca, the city of eternal spring, a little over an hour from the city in May of 2019. On the road we stopped at a restaurant as big as an hacienda, desolate but towering on a small knoll right off the chalky highway. 

I ordered lentil soup and fried banana; my vegan options. He ordered huauzontles capeados. The dish caught my attention; it was something I hadn’t seen before. Mexican gastronomy, with its copious regional varieties, often has me feeling this way, even as its descendant — curious and awestruck, its forever student.   

Mexican gastronomy, with its copious regional varieties, often has me feeling this way, even as its descendant — curious and awestruck, its forever student.   

The huauzontles, an olive green bunch of bushy florets sprouting on a thick stem, were fried to a golden crisp, the florets peeked through the tawny crust like a topographic map of a forest. Its stem poked out of the dish like a tail. A shimmering tomato sauce pooled underneath, encompassing the huauzontle like a spotlight. I watched as my dad sunk his fork through it, revealing a crumbling bright white cheese. I had to have a taste. 

I brought a cheeseless piece into my mouth, but the fried egg coating overwhelmed my palate, and I couldn’t appreciate the herb. I remained fascinated by the huauzontle, but didn’t know what it was; my dad explained it was a quelite. Quelites (pronounced: keh-lee-tehs) are the young and tender edible plants, herbs, and flowers endemic to all of Mexico. I didn’t know they had a name. 

Quelites. The word itself sparked something — memories — and felt like pulling at a thread that quickly began to unspool. I recalled the mixed quelite taco I had at Molino Pujol, a restaurant tucked away in Roma just days before. There they blended a host of different tender herbs into a thick creamy green sauce for the filling, an hoja santa pressed into the tortilla’s round surface, adding to the delicate layers of flavor. 

Credit: Photo: Yudi Ela Echevarria; Food Stylist: Ashley Nevarez; Prop Stylist: Nidia Cueva

The thread pulled; I spun deeper. I remembered the squash blossom quesadillas that were a favored delicacy at home and taquerias. As a kid, eating blossoms made me feel like Thumper, who eats red clover blossoms, in the movie Bambi. As I got older, the blossoms appeared less frequently on our plates. The rare moments I’d find them made me realize just how connected I was to them, and how deeply I appreciated them.

It pulled even deeper, to the romeritos (seepweed) with potato and mole that we’d eat during Christmases in Tijuana when I was a kid. A dish deep in my food memories that I crave to reconnect with as an adult. 

Credit: Photo: Yudi Ela Echevarria; Food Stylist: Ashley Nevarez; Prop Stylist; Nidia Cueva

With more than 500 known varieties that exist all across my home country, there are myriad ways to cook quelites. Their Nahuatl name, quilitl, means edible herbs, and they can be prepared stewed (known as ‘quilmulli’), fried, or blanched (known as quelites blancos) to name a few. Some are used to season dishes (like epazotes) — according to The Nuevo Cocinero Mexicano, a dictionary of Mexican gastronomy published in 1888 I picked up in a used book shop tucked away in Cuernavaca during the same trip.

Quelites will sometimes propagate in the wild, and at other times grow within milpas (also known as three sisters; an Indigenous agricultural system, predating Mayan and Aztec civilizations, that grows the three staple crops of maiz, beans, and squash together). Squash vines, leaves, shoots, and blossoms grow with the milpa as they develop into squash; bean flowers grow from its stems as pods emerge, and other quelites can also be grown in synchronicity with it. 

Today, quelites remain an integral part of our traditional cuisine, from mole de quelites to tortas de huauzontle, papalos in cemitas, tuzas in salsa verde, and more. We encounter them entwined in contemporary postcolonial Mexican cuisine. They were cooked down into Chef Tony Ortiz’s hoja santa butter sauce for a spring dinner experience that also included dishes with squash blossom and crystalized hoja santa in Brooklyn. And at Nixta Taqueria in Austin, Texas, they’re incorporated into daily specials, like a pecan pipian pumpkin and mezquite taco topped with verdolaga, and a quelite ball filled with quesillo that’s battered in masa and served with a quelite pipian. Across the border, quelites are in the brittle of a dessert and on the crust of a concha at the revered Guadalajara restaurant Xokol

Quelites are also wholly embraced by modern Mexican plant eaters, who usher vegan Mexican cuisine by combining traditional regional gastronomy with indigenous ingredients and applications, while also using veganized products to substitute ingredients like cheese or milk. 

One beautiful example is beloved and popular Instagram recipe developer Alexa Soto’s squash blossom requesón quesadillas. Another is vegan Mexican cuisine pioneer Dora Stone’s zucchini blossoms stuffed with poblano calabazas and cashew cheese, as seen on her Instagram, Dora’s Table.

Three Mexican Quelite Recipes I Love

To this growing and evolving collection of vegan quelite dishes, we contribute three recipes. 

Credit: Photo: Yudi Ela Echevarria; Food Stylist; Ashley Nevarez; Prop Stylist: Nidia Cueva

The first of these is recipe developer Alex Cardena’s Vegan Mushroom and Verdolaga Quesadilla. Cardena folds a tortilla made with fresh blue maíz masa — a quintessential Mexican food — with purslane (verdolaga) stewed “a la Mexicana,” with onion, tomato, and garlic, and served with a smoky chiltomate salsa (an accidentally, and elementally, vegan gift from Indigenous cooks past and present). It’s a dish spun together with all traditional components; its only twist being the inclusion of a tangy plant-based cheese that tethers together flavor and texture with nostalgia. 

With the boom of vegan Mexican cuisine, vegan recipe developers, and vegan-friendly restaurants and pop-ups like For All Things Good in Brooklyn, Cena Vegan in Los Angeles, and the East LA taqueria Evil Cooks (with their black vegan trompo al pastor), staying closely tethered to your roots while maintaining a vegan diet has become relatively seamless. But it wasn’t always this way. For those of us who have been meatless for years before the boom, it’s been an uphill battle.

Today, I know the cuisine of my people relies largely on plant-based ingredients. Quelites’ survival down a long road of a complicated and diverse gastronomical history reveals we inherently have a taste for plants, and they hold infinite value in our cuisine. They’ve formed part of our food memories for thousands of years. 

Yet, from the tender age of 11 or 12, when the desire of being vegetarian first awoke in me, I’d always been told one thing: But. You’re. Mexican. 

It was as if my Mexicanness was synonymous with meat. Meat. Animal flesh like cow and pig that wasn’t even native to Mexico to begin with — much like cilantro. Is being Mexican so fragile that not eating meat would shatter it into a million little pieces? Of course not. But I didn’t have that answer then. Just the question, the doubt, and the insecurity. When the waft of carne asada tacos or al pastor would prick my nose on Sundays in Tijuana standing at a taqueria — where we’d go in place of church — I’d cave and tuck into what I knew home to be: tacos. Because Mexicanness, I thought, was only available by crossing the border and tasting it. 

Because Mexicanness, I thought, was only available by crossing the border and tasting it. 

By the age of 15 I was officially vegetarian. I let the doubt of my Mexicanness fall to the wayside with its big question mark pushed to the depths of my mind while I gorged on bean and cheese burritos, tacos de huitlacoche, and quesadillas that snuggled squash blossoms with melted Monterey Jack. 

When I went vegan, almost a decade after I went vegetarian, the question mark needling my Mexicanness returned with sharper edges. There was no more pan dulce with coffee on slow weekend mornings to the backdrop of birds chirping, or tamales de rajas con queso (cheese and chile poblano) over the holidays. There was no more rosca de reyes (three kings cake) during Three Kings Day, searching for the plastic baby Jesus hidden in its bread, or veggie tortas at fruterias with fresh bolillo and chipotle mayo after the movies with my partner. 

The parameters around what parts of my culture I would taste suddenly became tighter, and my role shifted from participant to observer: Because I no longer indulged in all of the foods that tie my friends and family together through our traditional channels, I watched as others did. 

No, I didn’t miss the carne asada, yes, “a little bit” of chicken bouillon or “a little bit” of manteca counts as non-vegan. I’d dodge questions, defend my stance, and laugh off comments until it got boring. 

Meanwhile I ate orange tofu and fried lemon pepper green beans from our local Mandarin Chinese food spot. East Asian cuisine, from Chinese to Thai to Japanese, Vietnamese, and Indian, with their rich plant-based history and culinary back bone, was always a refuge throughout my meatless transitions and a treasured mainstay in my vegan diet. This has not been my experience alone. 

For Ernesto Gonzalez, creator of Instagram food account PlantBasedTradition, the journey into veganism was also welcomed by East and Southeast Asian cuisines. Restaurants like Los Angeles’ Ocha Classic, which serves Thai food, provided what he calls “a safe haven” for exploring veganism. That, coupled with the enlivening curiosity to make his favorites at home and a Youtube channel hosted by Maangchi, a beloved Korean cook with more than six million viewers, gave him the tools to learn. 

Credit: Photo: Yudi Ela Echevarria; Food Stylist: Ashley Nevarez; Prop Stylist: Nidia Cueva

In our second featured recipe, Gonzalez’s Squash Vine Kimchi is a love letter to Korean food and to his family, who taught him about so many of the inherently vegan dishes he eats today. He uses squash vines, blossoms, and leaves in place of the traditional napa cabbage, inspired by Korean recipes that use quelites like dandelion and mustard greens, and Mexican chiles instead of Korean chili powder. 

Squash blossom, the soft and succulent quelite flower, is often attributed to Italian cuisine. But it existed in the Americas long before the Columbian Exchange of 1492, the event that would, of course, exchange more than just food, and make its own lasting impact on European gastronomy with little to no attribution.  

Today, three years after poking holes through memories with huazontles capeados on the road to Cuernavaca, the edges of the quelites remind me. I pick up the thread again, and pull.

Woven tightly into this journey is a kingdom of plants, of fungi, of roots, of vegetables, legumes, and grains that has opened itself up; and with more perspective I see they reveal a larger tapestry. It’s a world that’s been there all along: Christmas romeritos, huitlacoche tacos, squash blossom quesadillas. And is one that continues to give me thread, each time a different strand, each one a different revelation. One that, through my own vegan journey, has braided together a new picture; a new cuisine emerging through the twine of one that’s been there for thousands of years. 

Credit: Photo: Yudi Ela Echevarria; Food Stylist: Ashley Nevarez; Prop Stylist: Nidia Cueva

For the final featured recipe, I was inspired by my partner’s family. They once made for us what they call “better than fish tacos” in order to ease our journey into veganhood. I call them Quelite Fishless Tacos. Inspired by the baja fried fish taco served with a heap of julienned fresh cabbage that’s gained popularity in my hometown of San Diego, I fry huauzontle and squash blossom — a traditional application for these quelites — and top the tacos with a smoky chipotle mayo, salsa bandera, and slices of avocado. 

To make the recipe, I pour a can of fizzing beer into my seasoned flour. As I whisk, my quelites sit to the side, clipped and ready to coat and fry. Blue and Rose, our husky-mixes, huddle near my feet, waiting intently for a quelite or piece of cabbage to drop. I dip and coat my huauzontles and squash blossoms in orchestrated moves, sealing in their moisture; left hand, right hand. I lay them smooth into a pool of fat that sputters as they slip in, crisping their tender exterior to a golden hue. The warmth in my kitchen rises, the amber afternoon light radiates softly through the window, the oil crackles into song, I remember myself.

Why Latinx? Some Thoughts on Language 

Latino, Latinx, Hispanic. What’s important to consider is that these terms are used mostly in the context of the United States to identify a large group of peoples in a uniform way. The reality is that many people identify simply by their country of origin or descent (for example, Colombian, Peruvian, Dominican, etc.). I, for example, identify as Mexican American instead of Latinx. Yet, the language around the term remains important to discuss. 

Hispanic derives from the Latin word Hispania, which means “pertaining to Spain.” Not only is it problematic to center the Spanish colonizer in an identifying word to represent the roughly 60 million people with roots in South, Central, and parts of North America, and the Caribbean, but it’s also simply not accurate. Spanish is not the only language spoken — there’s French and Haitian Creole in Haiti, Portuguese in Brazil, and countless Indigenous languages like Zapotec and Purépehca that are also erased under this umbrella term. And yet some 68 percent of respondents, according to a 2021 poll conducted by Bendixen and Amandi International, say they favor the term Hispanic

Latino is a more inclusive term in that it refers to all romantic languages, but is male gendered, and it erases Indigneous and LGBTQ+ identities. 

Then there’s Latinx, an updated term that is inclusive of LGBTQ+ identities as the “x” makes it gender-neutral; however, again, it’s not inclusive of Indigenous peoples, and unfortunately many Latinx people feel it betrays their native language. Although, I feel it makes sense in the American context. 

Latine feels most in line with Spanish gender-neutral language; in places like Mexico, the “e” is used in place of “a” or “o” to denote a gender-neutral noun, I am partial to this term, although out of habit I find myself using Latinx more. 

Of course, it feels like an impossible and perhaps unhelpful task to try to homogenize the many identities that exist within North, Central, and South America and the Caribbean Islands. However, because the perfect term does not yet exist, and because, in my experience, it’s best to be regionally specific when it comes to identity, in this package we are using Latinx — even with its many shortcomings and imperfections — for Latinx Heritage Month, as the story is being expressed within an American context and perspective.