If you are a fan of Mexican cuisine but struggle to understand the difference between quesadillas and fajitas, you are in the right place! This article will explain the differences between the two including where to find them, regional variations, and the common ingredients used in each. Ready to learn more? Read on!
Table of contents
- What is a quesadilla?
- Main quesadilla ingredients
- What are quesadillas served with?
- How are quesadillas cooked?
- Where can you find quesadillas?
- What’s to love about quesadillas?
- FAQs about quesadillas
- What are fajitas?
- Where are fajitas from?
- Main fajita ingredients
- What are fajitas served with?
- How are fajitas cooked?
- Where can I find fajitas?
- FAQs about fajitas
- Fajitas vs. quesadillas – What are the main differences?
- Quesadillas or fajitas for dinner? Why not both!
What is a quesadilla?
A quesadilla is a tortilla filled with melted cheese or other ingredients. To make a quesadilla, simply place the ingredients on half of the tortilla. Fold the other side of the tortilla over the ingredients to make a half-moon shape. Then cook the quesadilla until the cheese melts, and the other ingredients are warmed through!
Cooking methods can vary, with quesadillas being made either on a griddle or deep fried (source: “Quesadilla”, Larousse Diccionario Enciclopédico de la Gastronomía Mexicana). Quesadillas can vary widely throughout Mexico. And American versions of quesadillas are different than their Mexican counterparts!
If you are living in the US, you are probably used to quesadillas made with wheat flour tortillas and cheddar or monterey jack cheese. Sometimes quesadillas include meat (like grilled chicken or steak), veggies (like red peppers, green peppers, corn, or avocados), or beans (black, pinto, refried, etc.). These quesadillas are usually made on a griddle or skillet. The tortilla is cooked until golden brown on the outside and the cheese is melted and gooey on the inside.
But in Mexico, quesadillas can be different.
Northern Mexico quesadillas
Like in the US, in northern Mexico, wheat flour tortillas are commonly used. In this part of Mexico, quesadillas are usually made with queso Chihuahua (Chihuahua cheese) or queso amarillo (yellow cheese) according to Larousse Diccionario Enciclopédico de la Gastronomía Mexicana author Ricardo Muñoz Zurita.
These northern Mexico versions are similar to the US versions, but are adapted to the flavors and ingredients found in this region. For example, you may find quesadillas in northern Mexican states that include machaca, or seafoods typically found in these regions.
Central Mexico quesadillas
But as you move south towards central Mexico, quesadillas can look and taste quite a bit different. If you are traveling in central Mexico, you should expect your quesadilla to be made with a corn tortilla.
A variety of fillings such as cheese or a mix of vegetables and meat can be included. Some common fillings are mushrooms, squash blossoms, huitlacoche (a type of corn fungus), tinga, potatoes and chorizo, picadillo (Mexican-style ground beef), or rajas (chile pepper strips), just to name a few (source: Larousse Diccionario Enciclopédico de la Gastronomía Mexicana author Ricardo Muñoz Zurita).
Here, the most common cheese for quesadillas is quesillo also known as queso Oaxaca (Oaxaca cheese)(source: “Quesillo”, Larousse Diccionario Enciclopédico de la Gastronomía Mexicana). This is a white, mild-flavored cheese, that melts easily…perfect for quesadillas!
And while most quesadillas are made with cheese, there is an exception. Where I live in Cuernavaca, Morelos, not all quesadillas come with cheese. If I want a chicken quesadilla with cheese, for example, I have to order the quesadilla combinada (combined) so that the cheese is included. Otherwise, I will just get a tortilla with chicken on the inside that has been warmed on a griddle.
Quesadillas that go by other names
Some regions in Mexico actually have different names for quesadillas with cheese and those with other fillings.
Author Zurita mentions that in the south and southeastern regions of Mexico, the term quesadilla is reserved exclusively for those filled only with cheese. If the tortilla is filled with another ingredient, then these are referred to as molotes, empanadas, or empanadas fritas (for the fried variety). These are not the same as empanadas made with wheat flour that you may be familiar with.
Main quesadilla ingredients
So what’s in a quesadilla anyway? At its core, a quesadilla is a tortilla with melted cheese inside. You can think of these as essentially the Mexican version of a grilled cheese sandwich. But, quesadillas have evolved to be so much more than a cheese-filled tortilla.
Quesadillas can be made with filling ingredients that you have on hand, like leftover black beans, or fajitas. I sometimes like to sautee some thinly sliced summer squash, bell peppers, and onions for a quick vegetarian quesadilla.
One of my favorite quesadillas is a mini goat cheese quesadilla that includes chopped bell peppers, onions, and cilantro.
In Mexico, the filling for quesadillas takes on an infinite variety that depends on the customs and ingredients of each region. More traditional central Mexican fillings can include mushrooms, tinga de pollo (a type of shredded chicken), squash blossoms, cooked prickly pear cactus, potatoes, pork rinds, beans, or even grasshoppers.
The quesadilla invites imagination and creativity! So, let your imagination run wild and make your quesadilla with whatever you have on hand!
What are quesadillas served with?
In central Mexico, it is common for quesadillas to be served with Mexican cream and a bit of shredded white cheese. In other areas, they are served with shredded lettuce, thinly sliced radishes, and onions. How quesadillas are prepared varies throughout Mexico and largely depends on the ingredients and customs of each region.
And of course, we can’t forget the salsa! Bowls of salsa are placed in the center of the table allowing each diner to add as much sauce as they wish!
Quesadillas can also make a great side dish for a comforting soup, like sopa de fideo, or a salad.
How are quesadillas cooked?
Quesadillas are typically made on a griddle or comal. The tortillas are cooked or warmed through, then filled with your ingredients of choice.
Some quesadillas in central Mexico are deep-fried. These quesadillas are made with corn tortillas and are called quesadillas fritas.
Where can you find quesadillas?
Quesadillas have become a staple on most Mexican restaurant menus. This means you can likely order one from your favorite Mexican food joint. And quesadillas are found throughout Mexico at small restaurants, taco shops, and street corner stands. But if you want complete control and creativity, you should try making your own quesadilla at home!
Here are a couple of recipes to get you started!
What’s to love about quesadillas?
We eat quesadillas a lot in our house. Why? Because this easy meal is great for the whole family!
For a simple, but hearty version, we make quesadillas with refried beans and cheese for a quick meal. Or we make a variation of the quesadilla with ham and cheese, called a sincronizada. If we want something a bit more sophisticated, we can sautee some veggies or include grilled meats.
Because this dish is so customizable, it can fit a variety of diets. And if you are using leftover ingredients as your filling or making simple cheese versions, quesadillas are fast to make!
FAQs about quesadillas
In case you want to know more about quesadillas, I have tried to answer some common questions below!
How do you pronounce quesadilla?
Say it like: kay-sah-DEE-yah
How did quesadillas get their name?
The name “quesadilla” comes from the main ingredient “queso” or cheese in Spanish. And although cheese was the original filling for these fast snacks, quesadillas have evolved to include an infinite number of ingredients besides cheese.
How do I store leftover quesadillas?
If you are bringing home a quesadilla left over from a restaurant meal, store the leftover quesadilla in an airtight container in the fridge. If you are assembling quesadillas at home and have leftover filling, I like to store the filling separately from the tortillas.
How do I reheat leftover quesadillas?
If you are reheating an already-assembled quesadilla, my recommendation would be to reheat it on the stove in a dry non-stick skillet over medium heat. Turn the quesadilla every once in a while to ensure that both sides of the tortilla are warm and take on a nice crispy outer texture.
You can also reheat these in the microwave, but the tortilla will be softer than quesadillas reheated on the stove.
If you are reheating the leftover filling that you have prepared at home, simply heat the filling separately and assemble new quesadillas!
What are fajitas?
Fajitas are a Tex-Mex dish made with chicken, steak, shrimp, or a combination of meats that are sautéed with bell peppers and onions. The ingredients are seasoned with cumin, chili powder, garlic, lime juice, and other spices, typically associated with Tex-Mex flavors. These fillings are then folded into soft tacos made with wheat flour tortillas.
Where are fajitas from?
Fajitas originated on the Mexico-Texas border near Laredo. Working-class Mexicans would buy economical cuts of faja or arrachera meat (skirt steak in English) and cook this cut using barbacoa and carne asada techniques to make the meat flavorful and tender.
Using this same technique, Houston restauranteur “Mama Ninfa” popularized this dish in 1973, when her steak tacos al carbon morphed into the fajitas that we know today! (Source: Jeffrey M. Pilcher’s book Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food). While originally fajitas were made with steak, now you can find chicken, shrimp, or even vegetarian versions of fajitas!
Main fajita ingredients
Fajitas, as they are most commonly known, include a protein, either steak, chicken, or shrimp, and sautéed peppers and onions. Spices like cumin, garlic, chili powder, and lime juice give fajitas their characteristic flavor. If you are looking for veggie options in your fajitas, you could add mushrooms, zucchini, or corn instead of the meat.
Of course, each version of fajitas is slightly different! You can find fajitas with a combination of meats or some that are vegetarian! Some fajitas are hotter or milder, and the spice variations change, depending on who is cooking them.
What are fajitas served with?
Fajitas are generally served with soft flour tortillas. Fill your tortilla with the fajita meat and vegetable mix and fold the ingredients inside to eat fajitas taco-style. Salsa, sour cream, guacamole, or pico de gallo can also be served on the side so that diners can prepare their fajitas according to their personal preference.
Sometimes beans and rice accompany fajitas for a filling and complete meal.
How are fajitas cooked?
Fajitas are so easy to make! I simply cook my fajitas in a bit of hot oil on the stove. Fajitas are made by sauteeing the meats and vegetables until the meat is cooked through and the veggies are just a bit tender, but still have a little crispness to them. All of the ingredients are flavored with a blend of spices like cumin, garlic, and chili powder.
Where can I find fajitas?
Fajitas are a typical Tex-Mex dish, so they are common in the southwestern United States and parts of northern Mexico. This dish isn’t typical in central or southern Mexico.
Of course, with Mexican food going global, you might be able to find fajitas in your local Mexican restaurant! And if you can’t order this dish at your local restaurant, try making it at home! I have an easy chicken fajitas recipe here for you to try!
FAQs about fajitas
Here are some answers to other common questions about fajitas.
How do you pronounce fajitas?
Say it like: fah-HEE-tahs
How did fajitas get their name?
The name fajitas comes from the word faja in Spanish, which means girdle or belt. Faja refers to the cut of meat (skirt steak in English) used for the original dish. The diminutive -itas in Spanish means little. So essentially the word fajitas means “little belt”, referring to the small strips of skirt steak used originally in this dish.
How do I store leftover fajitas?
Store the fajita ingredients in an airtight container in the fridge. You will want to keep the fajita filling ingredients separate from the tortillas, salsa, or guacamole that may have come with this dish. To reheat fajitas, you can place them on a plate in the microwave or in a skillet on the stove until warmed through. You may want to add a bit of broth or water to the fajitas to help keep them moist when reheated.
Fajitas vs. quesadillas – What are the main differences?
If you have gotten this far, then you probably know more than you ever wanted to know about these two foods. But just to sum up the important points, I made this handy chart to show you the differences between these Mexican dishes.
Quesadillas or fajitas for dinner? Why not both!
Now, if you can’t decide whether to have a quesadilla or fajitas for your next meal, why not make a fajita quesadilla and combine both dishes into one? You can easily make chicken fajita quesadillas by making chicken fajitas and then using the fajitas to fill a flour tortilla with melted cheese on the inside for a delicious meal.
I hope you found this article informative! Let me know if there are any other questions about these two Mexican dishes in the comments!