The word of the day is “queso.” Cheese in English.
In Mexico they only have a few kinds of cheese and except for queso Oaxaca (Mexican string cheese) they are all pretty much the same, only varying in ripeness (aging) and, thus, firmness and stronger flavor. The way I, a gringo, see it is that they have the kind that crumbles, the hard kind either grated or whole, and Oaxaca. Little do I know!
Once a week, a friend of mine who lives in Buena Vista, a small town near Taxco, comes to town bearing handmade cheese that everyone says is “the best.” I decided to get some for the house and was asked what kind I wanted. I knew I wanted Oaxaca (for quesadillas or just eating) and I wanted the kind that crumbles to put on tacos, tostadas, etc. so that is what I asked for.
My friend was apparently confused by my using the word crumbles (and I found out later, that he asked another American what I meant by that) and by text he replied, “Sorry I’m not sure which is the second one. What do you want to do with it? I know you want to eat it but how??”
I, thinking this is a simple request (after all, they only have 4 kinds of cheese), answered, “For tacos and such.”
Still confused about “what kind” of cheese I wanted, he told me he would send a message in Spanish and would I please show it to Irma and have her respond. But Irma, not having her “lentes” (glasses), could not read the message, so I handed my phone to her grandson to read and reply in Spanish.
A very lively conversation discussing cheese names ensued between them. I imagine, she just buys it, like I do, hard, soft or crumbly, from the cheese stalls in the “mercado” (market.) Finally, they settled on a couple kinds by name (manchego or criollo), then changed their minds and asked for cotija or criollo.
Thinking we had settled on the quantity and kind of cheese, I headed up to my room on the fourth floor. About the time I was taking off my shoes, I received another message. My friend wanted to know if they wanted “suave” (soft) or “seko” (hard) and told me that one kind came both ways and the other only came “seko.” So down the stairs I went to ask an “otro pregunta” (another question.)
Criollo seko being decided upon, my friend acknowledged the choice with a “Sorry now.”
This sent me into peals of laughter. He was not the one to take 20 minutes to figure out what kind of cheese we wanted, nor was it his confusion to be sorry for. After saying so, I replied facetiously, “You only have a few kinds of cheese, how hard can it be?”
To which he replied, “Just a little hard. Don’t worry,” which had me laughing even harder.
I explained that, “In Wisconsin, we have hundreds of kinds of cheese to choose from. This is too funny!”
“jaja” (ha ha),he replied.
To be fair, the Mexican food guru at Epicurious says there are seven kinds of Mexican cheese. The kinds I know are:
Queso Fresco (Fresh cheese): Aged only a few days, it is soft and crumbly and can be used like feta. (I think this may be the kind I was thinking of.) I have since learned that cheese here is made from raw milk and because this cheese is not aged very long, it can possibly carry a bacteria that can make you sick. You should definitely cook it.
Queso Cotija: A hard cheese that is sold in rounds or grated from large blocks. The unique thing about this cheese is that it does not melt, it only softens, making it perfect for Chile con Queso – where you brown the cheese on a griddle, then serve it in chile verde sauce like soup. Yummy. The browned cheese is delicious all by itself too.
Queso Criollo: Is a local cheese made only here in the state of Guerrero. It appears, by its use, to be similar in nature to Cotija. Better to crumble this kind than Fresco.
Queso de Oaxaca:
My favorite, because we have nothing like it in the States, comes in broad strands that resemble string cheese, only softer. It’s unique texture comes from stretching the cheese as it is made. Pull it apart and put it on beans, tostadas, or soups, or because it melts wonderfully, in quesadillas. I will often buy a few pesos worth for an easy snack on the go.
And then of course there is that other dairy product — crema, a thick fresh or slightly sour cream (like the French creme fraiche) that is dolloped on tacos, tostadas, and in soups.
For a description of other Mexican cheeses and some delicious sounding recipes, see the Mexican cheese article in Epicurious.