Quelites, the silent heroes of the Mexican food

Rather than simply present in the diet of Mexicans, quelites are once again gaining relevance and it seems that they will assume the leading role.

Quelites, the silent heroes of the Mexican food
The consumption of quelites is traditional in Mexican culture. Image: Public domain

There are several hundred quelites in Mexico, with innumerable nutritional properties, whose consumption is being rescued as a valuable legacy for the country and the world.

Quelites are a traditional food in Mexico that has been eaten since before the Spaniards came. Although the number of people who eat them has gone down over time, they are an important part of the current trend to bring back old foods.

What are quelites?

According to a document of the National Commission for Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity (Conabio), the word quelite comes from the Nahuatl word quilitl, which means vegetable or edible tender plant, and is applied to flowers, leaves, bulbs, and buds of tender trees.

The cultivation of these quelites has been carried out mainly by small farmers, with few external inputs, and based on local knowledge of the species. Quelites can grow in soils that don't have much water or nutrients, so they can survive in dry conditions with little care and no help from outside.

Among the most common are the papalo, purslane, quintonil, romerito, quelite cenizo, huauzontle, alaches, epazote, chaya, hoja santa, and chepiles, and according to the book "Los quelites, tradición millenaria en México", by Delia Castro Lara, Francisco Basurto Peña, Luz María Mera Ovando, and Robert Arthur Bye Boettler, the presence of plants like these has been documented since the 16th century.

"There is the great work of Fray Bernardino de Sahagun, "General history of things in New Spain", finished around 1577, whose eleventh book is dedicated to the Quelites: in two paragraphs of Chapter VII, paragraph 3 deals "with cooked edible herbs" and paragraph 4 "with the herbs that are eaten raw".

Concerning the number of quelites endemic to Mexico (because there are others, such as coriander, that have been adopted), the texts that analyze them are not agreed upon. However, Alaide Jimenez, research professor at the Center for Research and Training in Gastronomy of the Food Science Area of the University of Sor Juana Cloister, says there are more than 300, which are attributed an important nutritional benefit, for which they are being studied and revalued.

"There is a group of UNAM researchers from different areas, led by Dr. Amanda Gálvez, from the Faculty of Chemistry, who headed the PUAL (University Food Program), who has a project called "Rescue of traditional undervalued species of the Mexican diet and their contribution to the improvement of nutrition in Mexico. As a result of these works, says the researcher, the book "Quelites: Flavors and Knowledge from the Southeast of the State of Mexico" was created, with 53 recipes from 22 cooks, producers, buyers, and sellers of quelites in an Ozumba tianguis.

"The most important thing we can highlight about this is the nutritional contribution; it has been proven that (the quelites) contain fiber, vitamins, minerals, and certain phytochemicals that help preserve health," she says. As for their consumption, although it has decreased in the population of Mexico, José Antonio Vázquez Medina, research professor at the Center for Research and Training in Gastronomy of the Social Sciences Area of the University of the Cloister of Sor Juana, considers that the quelites have a future thanks to outreach work such as the aforementioned recipe book and their inclusion in haute cuisine.

"Now the flavor and organoleptic characteristics of the quelites themselves are beginning to stand out, that is, the texture, the freshness, the ease of mixing with other things (...) and if we look back at popular culture, the quelites appear in expressions such as quesadillas, tacos, and soups." Thus, the quelites, rather simply present in the diet of Mexicans, are once again gaining relevance, and it seems that they will assume the leading role that belongs to them.

Over the last five centuries, the diversity of species consumed as quelites has decreased by 55–90%. 15 species of quelites are currently consumed in the valley of Mexico, compared to 84 to 150 that were consumed in 1580. It is estimated that about 7, 000 species of plants are used in some way, whether for their medicinal, edible, or ornamental properties. The quelites occupy a prominent place.