The Many Quelites de México

By Julie Etra

Do you ever wonder about the romeritos in the produce section of Super Che (the Chedraui supermarket in Huatulco), or wherever you shop for produce? How are they are cooked? Or served fresh? As an ingredient in a particular dish? They are one of many Mexican edible wild greens (think of young dandelion greens, which by the way, are not native to North America), known as quelites. The name is Nahuatl in origin, from quilitl, which means “tender edible herb.” They are vital in Mexican cuisine, their use predates the Conquest, and they are recognized for their high nutritional value.

These greens typically grow wild, like dandelions, and can be found in fields of other crops. Over a dozen plants, not all of which are native to Mexico, are considered quelites. Some of these plants are classed as weeds or pests in the United States, as we have not learned how to appreciate them. For hispanoparlantes, this video offers the best explanation and description of quelites: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9OSFM5dy_2Y (it is fun to watch even without knowing Spanish!).

The following is a list of some of the most popular quelites, and examples of their preparation.

Romeritos (Suaeda torreyana), known as sea-blight in English, grow in tidal wetlands and salt flats, and likes salty soils. It is known by many other names in the indigenous languages of different areas in Mexico (as are the other quelites). It is prepared as a traditional Christmas dish, or Romeritos Navideños, which includes mole paste, nopales (cactus paddles), potatoes, and garlic, but can be more simply simmered and served with nopales and shrimp.

Huazontle – the name is shortened from the Nahuatl huauhzontli – is also known as quelite cenizo (Chenopodium berlandieri). It is frequently found in somewhat salty soils, and is considered a weed in the western United States. It is related to another “weed,” lambsquarters (Chenopodium alba), which is actually quite tasty as a leafy green when it is young. Although huazontle is bitter when eaten raw, it is highly nutritious and can be prepared in a variety of ways, including with battered eggs (capeado), fried, simmered, in soups, and stews; it is bitter when eaten raw. (See “Mexican Vegetables: How about Huazontle?” in The Eye, August 2014.)

Verdolaga, Portulaca oleracea, or common purslane in English, is another quelite that shows up in irrigated pastures and vegetable gardens, including mine, and is highly nutritious. A common recipe is to sautée it in oil with onion, garlic, tomatoes, and chilies, but it is also eaten raw and in salads and tacos.

Alache, Halache or Vilota (Anoda cristata) is malva cimarrona and is in the same family with the hibiscus, the source of the delicious jamaica tea, and hollyhocks. These greens grow rapidly, like a robust weed. The tender leaves are used in the preparation of soups and broths, in combination with garlic, onion, pepicha (Porophyllum linaria, in the sunflower family. another quelite) and served with serrano peppers. It is also prepared as a medicinal tea.

Chepil (Crotalaria longirostrata), also known as chipilin, is an attractive quelite in the pea family. Once you recognize this plant and its pretty yellow pea-like flowers, you will see it growing everywhere around Huatulco. The leaves are used in traditional Oaxacan tamales in the masa, or dough. They are also used in the Oaxacan soup called espesado de chepil, which includes squash blossoms, zucchini, corn, lime, and salt. In Chiapas they make a soup with corn dough balls mixed with chepil. Sometimes you can find the tamales de chepil in the Mercado Organico de Huatulco, and it is very popular in Oaxacan cuisine.

Hoja santa or momo (Piper auritem). Hoja santa means “holy leaf”; a favorite Mexican recipe, quesadillas de hoja santa, uses the leaf of this plant as a substitute for the tortilla, with quesillo (Oaxacan cheese), mushrooms, onion, garlic, epazote (another Mexican herb), salt and pepper. YUM. There are recipes for chicken in hoja santa, and aguas (beverages) made with hoja santa. This is a versatile plant, with the leaves used to wrap all sorts of ingredients, and is an essential component of the green mole of Oaxaca.

Pápalo (Porophyllum ruderale). This leafy green is said to taste somewhere between arugula, cilantro and rue, and is used in salsas (salsa verde, guacamole) and to season meat. It is also used in tacos, and soups, and should be served raw. Also known as quilquina and papaloquelite, the root of the word, so to speak, comes from papalotl, the Nahuatl word for butterfly.

Quintonil, also called bledo (Amaranthus spp). This quelite is well known from its seeds, but preparation of the greens varies, and it is used in several dishes. The leaves can be boiled with salt and combined in stews with chilis, onion and tomato. Sometimes they are also steamed and sauce is added. In the municipality of Naupan, Puebla, the greens are used in tamales with pork.

Hierba mora (Solanum nigrescens). This plant has good company as it is in the same family as potatoes, chilis, and tomatoes, all edible, and the nightshades, which are poisonous. It has medicinal value, for pain relief and for cleansing of the liver and kidney. The leaves, flowers, fruit and even the root are used. It is also used in stews and soups and is a vegetarian alternative for Catholics abstaining from meat on Fridays. The tender leaves are boiled; sautéed tomatoes, chilies, and onions are added. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zpdFRAyVzgk

Chaya (Cnidoscolus aconitifolius). I first learned about this plant in Merida, as it is very popular in the Yucatan, but I have also enjoyed delicious agua de chaya at the Saturday Huatulco Organic Market, which is especially tasty with cucumber (pepino). Chaya leavers make an excellent soup an a great torta with potatoes, like a potato pancake. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yHE3XKWludM

Flores de agave. Also known as galumbo, agave flowers can be simmered until tender, and with, guess what, sautéed tomatoes, chilies, and garlic. Add a pinch or two of salt and bicarbonate of soda, then add the drained flowers. Serve with tortillas de nopal. Although not directly related, yucca flowers (Yucca spp.) can be fleshy in texture, almost like endive, eaten raw and in salads.

Flores y cogollitos de Colorín (Erythrina coralloides). Flowers and flower buds of the colorín tree – yes, we do have a Calle Colorín in la Crucecita, where the streets are named for native trees. This beautiful tree attracts lots of hummingbirds. They can be prepared with beans to make pancakes. In the Nahua region of Mexico state, they are eaten cooked or fried; scrambled with eggs; mixed with a chili sauce, garlic, and epazote; served with beans and flavored with chili and cumin.

Lengua de vaca, or cow’s tongue (Rumex mexicanus). This quelite is used as a condiment due to its sour and slightly bitter taste. It is related to dock and sorrel, both foraged and grown in the U.S. Its use varies with location, of course, as Mexican cuisine varies enormously by region. In central Mexico, ground stems and leaves of lengua de vaca is used to flavor the mole de olla broth; they are also used in salads and sauces, steamed or stewed in tomato sauce.

Malacate, Malacote (Hydrocotyle ranunculoides) is an aquatic plant. Known as floating pennywort in English, the plant has naturalized to the point of being an invasive species in Europe. A relative of carrots, celery and parsley, the young leaves and stems of malacate are used in salads – the fresh flavor is reminiscent of celery. Older leaves are bitter, but can be cooked.

Okay Eye readers, you have enough to digest. ¡Buen provecho!

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