Ingredient Intelligence

All About Quelites — A Flavorful and Nutritious Cornerstone of Mexican Cuisine

published Sep 15, 2022
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Labeled photo of three quelites: Huauzontle, Verdolagas (purslane) and Flor de calabaza (squash blossoms)
Credit: Photo: Yudi Ela Echevarria; Food Stylist: Ashley Nevarez; Prop Stylist; Nidia Cueva

In Mexico, out of the approximately 23,000 plant varieties, about 500 of them are delicious and nutritious young, tender plants known as quelites. Quelites are some of the most ancestral and endemic bedrock ingredients of Mesoamerica cuisine and are even referenced in the 16th century Florentine Codex

These young plants are typically characterized by their tenderness: They’re the squash blossom that blooms yellow before the squash swells from its base, they’re the bean flower that opens up sweetly with its soft petals before the bean pushes through and the petals wilt at its edge. They’re the yucca flower, the violet flower. They’re the leaves of radishes and the shoots of squash and beans. They’re bushy, they’re varied — and they’re delicious. 

Often sprouting from milpas — the synchronic agricultural system that at its core grows the three sisters, maíz, beans, and squash — quelites are typically prepared and enjoyed together with their sibling crops. But milpas are not the only way quelites grow. They’re also cultivated in agricultural fields, and grow abundantly in the wild — in forests, grasslands, and in plains. Quelites, like dandelion and mustard leaves, can even be found sprouting along city sidewalks, although we know them by other names.

Their preparation methods vary from region to region as ecosystems, microclimates, and cultures vary widely throughout Mexico. They’re sautéed, wilted, fried, and blanched and find their way into soups and stews, quesadillas, sauces, moles, and more. These tender herbs and flowers may be young, but they’re packed with flavor — like epazote, the minty, anise-forward herb that’s used to flavor beans; or grassy, peppery pápalo that’s typically used in green moles. 

Not only are they flavorful, but quelites are also revered for their nutritional and medicinal benefits. For example, pápalo is consumed to lower inflammation and hoja santa is eaten to aid digestion. 

So if you weren’t yet acquainted with quelites, like squash blossoms and shoots, huauzontle, and verdolagas, or if they’re old friends, we welcome you to learn a little more about our favorite quelites, and color your kitchen a little more green.

Verdolagas (Purslane) 

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

Verdolagas are teardrop-shaped quelites with thick but tender stems that are juicy and succulent. They often have small yellow flowers and can be found by looking down, as the plant grows sprawled across the ground. Purslane, the English name for verdolaga, is used medicinally for ailments like digestive issues and inflammation. In the kitchen, the leaves and shoots can be sautéed, steamed, or eaten raw and are perfect for stews or salads.

Try them in Alex Cardenas’ mushroom and verdolaga quesadillas.

Romerito (Seepweed)

Romerito, also known as quelite salado, or salted quelite, is a familiar quelite during Mexican holiday dinners, commonly and traditionally prepared with diced potato and mole for Christmas or Easter. This childhood favorite was a rich, stewy, herbaceous dish with savory, earthy notes. Although its name sounds like the Spanish translation of rosemary, romerito isn’t a rosemary — it’s a seepweed. This quelite grows wild, and up to 60 centimeters (23 inches) in length, in milpas that cultivate maíz, and in some parts of Mexico it’s even an invasive weed.

Romerito’s flavor is earthy and in the era of the Aztec civilization, it was prepared with ahuauatles — eggs produced by aquatic flies that taste like shrimp. This is why romeritos are often paired with shrimp today. To prepare romeritos, first separate the long narrow leaves from the stem and give the leaves a rinse, then boil with salt (and aromatics like garlic and onion, if desired) on medium heat until they are tender and a darker shade of green, which should take 10 to 15 minutes. The liquid you are left with can be saved as a delicious romerito broth. Once boiled, you can add romerito to mole, soups, stews, tacos, or as any filling your heart desires: sopes, tetelas, tortillas — any shape of maíz!

Hoja Santa

Hoja santa translates to sacred herb/leaf, and is a forest green heart-shaped leaf with peppery anise and root beer notes. The leaves are commonly seen pressed into tortillas to add an extra aromatic and visual element to quesadillas, tacos, or tetelas. These sweet-smelling quelites typically grow in tropical regions like Oaxaca and Veracruz, and can grow up to 30 centimeters (almost 12 inches). Medicinally, they are used to soothe stomachaches and as a sedative to combat insomnia. In the kitchen, they make a fragrant tea, and their delicate flavor lends itself to foods like salsas, broths, and mole verde, and adds a lovely pop of flavor as a tamal wrap between the husk and masa.

Huauzontle

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

Huauzontle — the cousin of amaranth, which was banned during colonization for its ceremonial uses — is a sap-green quelite that grows bushy florets off thick, sturdy stems. It has a vegetal, grassy, peppery flavor, similar to broccoli.

Indigenous cooks, like the Mexicas, otherwise known as the Aztecs, would blanch this quelite to temper its bitterness, and it was also used in spiritual ceremonies. All parts of the huauzontle can be consumed, from the leaves to its stems and seeds. It’s used in famous traditional dishes, like huazontle capeados, where the quelite is stuffed with fresh cheese, coated in an egg batter, and fried.

Today, cooks still typically boil the huauzontle as the first step in most recipes, and it can be used in stews, soups, salads, battered and fried, or chopped up and fried in fritters — although a touch of oil and sprinkle of salt is sometimes all this quelite needs. I forgo the boiling step and let the grassy flavor come through when I fry huauzontle for my vegan fishless tacos.

Flor de Calabaza (Squash Blossom), Guías de Calabaza (Squash Vines), and Hoja de Calabaza (Squash Leaves)

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

Golden, tender and absolutely beautiful, squash blossoms are probably the most popular and familiar edible flower in the quelite family. They originated in Mesoamerica and form a quintessential part of Indigenous cuisine together with beans and maíz. (Although squash blossoms are more commonly recognized as part of Italian cuisine, they reached Europe much later due to colonization and the Columbian Exchange.)


Squash blossoms are predecessors to the harvest of squash in a milpa, and bloom from late spring to early fall. Other parts of the squash, like the leaves and shoots, are also considered quelites. In Oaxaca, they are commonly consumed in empanadas, or what we know as quesadillas, with quesillo, and on tlayudas. They can also be made into creamed or brothy soups, added to stews, fried for tacos, and even fermented into kimchi.  

Pápalo 

Considered the “Aztec butterfly,” pápalo — known as papaloquelitl in Nahuatl — has scalloped edges and is a minty emerald-green color. Valued for its nutritional and medicinal benefits, this herb is potent both holistically and culinarily. Medicinally, pápalo is thought to regulate cholesterol and high blood pressure, amongst other benefits. Gastronomically, this quelite — which is used fresh and tastes like a peppery cross between spinach and arugula with a touch of heat — is delicious in tortas like cemitas poblanas, adds a nice zing in tomatillo-based salsas, and is a great peppery addition to salads or as a garnish to cut through rich dishes. It’s even suggested as an alternative for people averse to the flavor of cilantro.  

Hoja de Rábano (Radish Leaves) 

Available in supermarkets and farmers markets, radish leaves are perhaps the most accessible quelite. These root tops have a light peppery flavor with a subtle bitterness. They can be juiced with other greens and sweetened with fruits like apple or citrus, blended into a creamed soup, chopped up into a salad, or sautéed with onion and garlic, and folded into a tofu or egg scramble.