No, not all Mexican food contains cheese. While cheese is a common ingredient in many popular Mexican dishes like quesadillas, tacos, and enchiladas, there are many traditional Mexican foods that are cheese-free.
Mexican cuisine is renowned worldwide for its complex and flavorful dishes like tacos, burritos, enchiladas, tamales, and more. Cheese is certainly a staple ingredient in Mexican cooking and adds a creamy, rich element to many recipes. However, with its diverse culinary history spanning various regions and influences, not all authentic Mexican fare contains cheese.
This article will explore the role of cheese in Mexican food, which classic dishes contain it, and which tasty options are cheese-free for those who wish to avoid it or have an allergy or intolerance. We’ll also bust some common myths about whether you can have real Mexican food without cheese.
The Role of Cheese in Mexican Cuisine
When you think of quintessential Mexican foods, it’s hard not to imagine melting cheese playing a starring role. Dishes like quesadillas, nachos, chilaquiles, and queso fundido seem intrinsically cheesy.
Cheese has been a part of Mexican cuisine since the colonial era when cows and goats were introduced by Spanish settlers. Dairy products were not common in pre-Columbian cooking, which relied more on local ingredients like corn, beans, chiles, tomatoes, squash, and wild game.
Today, the most popular cheeses used in Mexican cooking include:
- Queso fresco – A soft, mild cheese that crumbles easily
- Queso Oaxaca – A mozzarella-style cheese that melts well
- Queso Chihuahua – A semi-soft cheese similar to cheddar
- Queso Panela – A soft, fresh cheese
- Queso Cotija – A firm, salty cheese usually used as a topping
- Queso Añejo – An aged Mexican cheese similar to parmesan
These cheeses balance and enhance the other robust ingredients in many Mexican dishes. The creaminess provides a cooling contrast to spicy salsas and complex spice blends. Cheese also adds valuable protein and calcium.
However, while integral to many recipes, cheese is not universally used in all regional Mexican cooking styles. Let’s explore which classic dishes contain cheese and which ones don’t.
Common Mexican Foods That Contain Cheese
Here are some of the most popular Mexican dishes that traditionally contain cheese:
Perhaps the quintessential cheesy Mexican food is the quesadilla. This ubiquitous appetizer or main is made by filling a tortilla with cheese then cooking it until the cheese melts. Common fillings include cheeses like queso Oaxaca, queso quesadilla, or Monterey jack.
Quesadillas are often stuffed with other ingredients like meats, beans, veggies, and more along with the cheese. But cheese is the essential binding ingredient that makes a quesadilla a quesadilla.
Like quesadillas, melted cheese is what defines nachos. This popular Tex-Mex appetizer is made by topping corn tortilla chips with melted cheese and an array of toppings like seasoned meat, beans, salsa, jalapeños, guacamole, and sour cream.
Without the melted Cheddar, Monterey Jack, or nacho cheese sauce, they are just chips! The cheese binds the toppings together.
Chilaquiles are made by frying corn tortillas, then drenching them in salsa. They are topped with cheese, crema, onions, and sometimes chicken, beef, or beans. Queso fresco is the most commonly used cheese, adding a mild contrast to the spicy salsa.
Enchiladas consist of corn tortillas stuffed with meat, cheese, and onions, then rolled up and smothered in enchilada sauce. Common fillings include cheese, chicken, beef, pork, or beans. Most recipes call for melted cheese inside the enchiladas and on top.
Tamales are made from masa dough stuffed with savory fillings and steamed in corn husks. Cheese tamales are very popular, especially when the masa is flavored with jalapeños. Common fillings include queso fresco, Chihahua cheese, Oaxaca cheese, or even pepper jack.
This dish is essentially Mexican-style fondue! Melted cheese is combined with broth and seasonings, then served with tortillas for dipping. It’s often cooked in a small cast-iron skillet. A blend of Monterey Jack, queso Oaxaca, and queso añejo is common.
Tortas are Mexican sandwiches served on telera rolls. They are often stuffed with cheese as well as meats like milanesa (breaded steak), chorizo, chicken, or carnitas. Oaxaca and queso Chihuahua are melting cheeses that work well in tortas.
These stuffed corn cakes are similar to huaraches and puppetas. They usually contain a filling of ground meat, salsa, lettuce, sour cream, and crumbled or melted cheese inside. Queso fresco and queso Cotija work well in gorditas.
Traditional Mexican Foods Without Cheese
While cheese is undeniably delicious, it’s not mandatory in Mexican cuisine. Here are some examples of classic Mexican dishes that are traditionally prepared without cheese:
Tacos may be one Mexican food you assumed always contained cheese. But traditional street-style tacos from Mexico are typically served without cheese, just meat, cilantro, and onion on a corn tortilla. Grilled meats like carne asada, al pastor, chorizo, chicken, or carnitas make flavorful fillings.
Some taco recipes will add crumbled queso fresco, but this is not as common in authentic Mexican tacos. You can request them “sin queso” or cheese-free.
While cheese tamales exist, more traditional tamale fillings do not contain cheese. Common options are shredded chicken, pork carnitas, mole, rajas con crema (poblano chiles and cream), and frijoles. Sweet tamales may contain coconut, pineapple, raisins, chocolate, or seasonal fruits.
This hearty hominy soup gets its flavor from bold chiles and rich, tender meats like pork, chicken or beef. Garnishes include shredded cabbage, radish, lime, oregano, chiles, and onion. Pozole is not traditionally made with cheese, but some recipes will melt queso fresco on top.
Menudo is a fiery tripe soup eaten as a hangover cure and comfort food. Its robust seasoning comes from chiles, garlic, hominy, lime, and oregano. You can add toppings like onions, cilantro, and radish, but menudo is not served with cheese.
A tostada consists of a crispy fried corn tortilla topped with beans, meat, lettuce, tomato, sour cream, and avocado. Authentic tostadas do not contain cheese, unlike their Tex-Mex counterpart, the nacho. However, some recipes will sprinkle queso fresco or Cotija on tostadas for added flavor.
Short little corn cakes called sopes are topped with meat, beans, cabbage, salsa, and crema. The ingredients are similar to gorditas or huaraches, minus the cheese. Some modern recipes add crumbled cheese, but traditionally sopes are cheese-free.
This bright, fresh seafood dish from coastal regions like Sinaloa consists of raw fish or shrimp marinated in citrus juice. Onions, chiles, cucumber, tomato, cilantro complete the dish. Ceviche has a bold flavor profile without requiring any cheese.
Refreshing aguas frescas like horchata (cinnamon rice water), tamarindo (tamarind), and jamaica (hibiscus) are flavorful Mexican drinks free of dairy. While you can find places adding cheese to aguas frescas these days, traditionally they do not contain any.
Grilled corn on the cob is slathered with a smoky, spicy, buttery sauce made from mayonnaise, Cotija cheese, chili powder, and lime. But if you omit the cheese, you still have delicious elote. The corn and sauce provide plenty of flavor on their own.
These stuffed pastries can contain a variety of fillings both sweet and savory. Common options like chicken, beef, beans, pumpkin, sweet potato, and plantains are all cheese-free. However, you can find some empanada recipes that incorporate cheese.
Street Fruit Cups/Salads
An easy snack sold by street vendors is fresh fruit salad served in a cup. Common ingredients are watermelon, jicama, mango, pineapple, cucumber, lime, and chile powder. These refreshing snacks contain no cheese.
Why Mexican Food is Often Perceived as Cheesy
Given the many delicious Mexican dishes that forgo cheese, where does the misconception come from that Mexican food is oozing with it? Here are some potential reasons:
- Popularity of Tex-Mex cuisine – Dishes like nachos, chili, fajitas, and taco salads popularized in Texas use ample amounts of cheese. This style became common in the U.S., shaping many people’s perception of Mexican food.
- Prevalence of cheeses like queso fresco – While used in moderation, the common crumbling cheeses lend a perception that all Mexican dishes contain cheese.
- Restaurants catering to American tastes – Mexican restaurants outside Mexico will sometimes add extra cheese to dishes to appeal to their customers. More cheese = better seems to be the logic.
- Rise of fast casual chains – Brands like Chipotle load up their burritos and bowls with cheese as default toppings. Customers come to expect cheese in these dishes.
- Cheesy crispy taco shells – Hard taco shells filled with ground beef, lettuce, tomato, shredded cheese, and sour cream are ubiquitous at Tex-Mex chains. This gave the impression that tacos aren’t tacos without cheese.
- Queso dip obsession – Thick, creamy queso served as an appetizer has become extremely popular in the U.S. This trend reinforces the link between Mexican food and cheese.
The fact is that authentic Mexican cuisine has an array of mouthwatering options that showcase chiles, spices, herbs, fruits, and vegetables without relying on cheese as the dominant flavor. Keep an open mind when exploring traditional dishes from Mexico and you will encounter many pleasant surprises.
Cheese Substitutes for Mexican Cuisine
If you want to cut cheese out of a recipe, there are creative substitutes you can use in Mexican cooking. Here are some ideas for ways to capture melty, creamy textures and flavors without the dairy.
- Plant-based cheese – Try brands like Daiya, Violife, or Miyoko’s
- Beans – Blended white beans can mimic a queso-like texture
- Nutritional yeast – Adds savory, cheesy notes
- Tapioca/arrowroot starch – Can help thicken consistency
- Vegetable purees – Like butternut squash or cauliflower
- Sautéed veggies – Onions, peppers, mushrooms, etc.
- Cashew cream
- Silken tofu
- Coconut milk/yogurt
- Pureed vegetables
- Nut/seed butters
- Vegan mayo or sour cream
- Beans, legumes
- Nutritional yeast
- Nuts like cashews or pepitas
- Seeds like sunflower or pumpkin
- Wine or vinegar
- Umami flavors – mushrooms, tomatoes, soy sauce, miso paste
- Smoky flavor – paprika, smoked salt
- Salty flavor – salt, soy sauce, miso
Don’t be afraid to experiment a little to find creative ways to adapt your favorite Mexican recipes!
To wrap up, while cheese is featured prominently in many staple Mexican dishes, it is also entirely possible to enjoy flavorful, satisfying Mexican food without it. Removing cheese doesn’t make a dish any less authentic.
There are plenty of classic Mexican specialties from street tacos to tamales that adhere to tradition while being 100% cheese-free. You can also substitute plant-based and other ingredients to recreate the textural and flavor roles that cheese plays.
Understanding the diverse landscape of Mexican cuisine shows how flavors like spice, herbs, fruits, and vegetables share the stage with if not eclipse cheese in many regional dishes. With an open mind and palate, Mexican food sans cheese can be just as amazing.