Monday, November 14, 2011

Getting Cheesey In Isla Mujeres

Say Cheeeeeeeeeeeeeeese!
.....or Queso!!
  If you shop at the groceries in Isla Mujeres, you won't find the cheeses you see in the dairy case "back home". (Except maybe at Chedraui, due to open next month.) Where's the Cheddar?  No Monterrey Jack. Isn't that a Mexican city?  (Jack originated in Monterey, California.)
You'll recognize Gouda & Edam from Europe, but most of the selections are labeled "Manchego". (This year there is Philadelphia Cream cheese sometimes, now with Poblano or Chipolte.)
    If you ask around the isle, residents & expats are likely to rave about string cheese from Oaxaca, sold by the strolling man in white, chanting "QUEsooooo OaXAcaca!
The packaged cheeses at "El Super" on the town square. From left they are Gouda, Manchengo, Edam, Oaxaca, and Crema Fresca.
    In the Yucatan, specialty cheeses come from Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Chihuahua. Names and appearances are not as standardized as American consumers are accustomed to, and cheeses are also sold in bulk from individual vendors. If you prefer your cheese labeled and shrink wrapped in plastic, your choices will be fewer and less interesting.  Local families often seek out particular sellers, and place special orders with friends traveling to the countryside, to obtain their favorite varieties.

    This is a list of Mexican cheeses, except Edam which is a European cheese with a strong history in the Yucatan. Its information follows the Mexican cheeses. You will have no difficulty finding Edam in Isla Mujeres, because it is essential to certain dishes of  the region and an intrinsic element of the cuisine. It might be on the shelf, rather than in the refrigerator. Its resistance to spoilage is partially why it has been popular in the Caribbean for centuries.
    In general, this list begins with the soft fresh cheeses and works its way down to the harder aged cheeses. Descriptions of flavors are generalizations, like saying, "That meat tastes like chicken."

Queso Fresco: A  fresh white cheese that is sprinkled atop many dishes, with a flavor similar to Parmesan or Feta. It is usually made with a combination of milk from goats and cows. It is grainy, mildly acidic, and classified as a soft cheese. These are chilaquiles at Buccanero's on Hidalgo. They are a breakfast dish and hangover remedy and are topped with Queso Fresco and media crema. Photo by JackieinPdx.

  Queso Anejo: An aged version of Queso Fresco which is technically considered a soft cheese, but it is actually firm and salty. (Anejo means aged.) It is similar to Romano or Parmesan, with a hint of Feta. It is usually grated or crumbled atop dishes as a condiment. It may be coated in paprika. When it is coated in chiles, it is called Queso Anejo Enchilada.
Queso Blanco: A fresh, creamy white cheese that softens when heated but does not melt. Its flavor reminds me of a slightly sour, low fat cream cheese. Is described as similar to cottage cheese or mozzarella.  When it is homemade, it is processed with lemon juice rather than rennet, giving it a superior flavor. It is made from skimmed cows milk, which is how it differs from Queso Fresco which traditionally includes goat's milk. It can be tricky to find a substitute for this cheese, because it does not run when it is heated, but retains its shape. It is made like "Farmer's Cheese" by draining the whey out of cottage cheese, but it is slightly more acidic due to using vinegar or lemon juice to separate the curds and whey.  If the curds are pressed, it is called "Queso Seco".
Queso Panela or Queso de Canasta: A fresh bland, soft, white cheese with an imprint of a basket. (Canasta means basket. Pan means bread. Panela probably refers to its spreadability.) It is often used for appetizers or snack trays and lends itself well to integrating other flavors. Serving it coated with a paste of chile & garlic is a popular option. It is also popular because it softens when heated,  retaining its shape, without melting and running. It is similar in flavor  to "Farmer's Cheese" or a light cream cheese.
 Queso Requeson: A  less common soft fresh cheese that is also used for cheese spreads. It is similar to ricotta but less salty. It is loose in texture and mild in flavor. When it is sold in mercados, it is often wrapped in fresh corn husks. I have not seen it in Isla Mujeres.  Queso Oaxaca:
A string cheese that is very popular for snacks, quesadillas, and melting atop dishes. It looks like a string cheese mozzarella and tasted similar to Muenster. It is a stretched curd cheese that is kneaded then wound into balls.
Shrimp Quesadilla w Oaxacan Cheese in IM
photo by Jessica at Food & Us 

Before preparing a dish with it, it is pulled apart into thin strips. It is also known as Quesillo. It is sold as an artesian cheese in Isla Mujeres. Friends & family members may return to Isla from the countryside,  bringing balls of Oaxacan cheese from particular areas or vendors, as well as recommending the product of the strolling vendor who chants "Kay SO! Wha  HA Ca Ca Ca...."("Queso Oaxaca") The first time I heard him, I asked my friend, "Why is that man in white walking down the street yelling "Caca?" (which means "shit"). Another of my linguistic confusions that she found amusing.   
La Bruja's Queso Fundido, La Gloria. 
Photo HollyEats
Queso Asadero: This means "Broiler" and it is a mild, chewy cheese used for chile rellenos and fundido. Chiles rellenos are stuffed chile peppers and fundido is similar to chile con carne or cheese fondue. It is melted cheese that is a popular late night snack with a variety of additions such as meats, shrimp, lobster, cactus (nopalitos), mushrooms, salsa, etc. You could substitute Muenster, Jack or Fontina. The Asadero cheese from Oaxaca has a distinctive flavor because wild berries (Trompillos) are used when making it.
 Queso Fundido with chorizo (sausage) at Rene & Renee's on Avenue Madero, an east/west street. They are just off Rueda Medina (main street) before Juarez (the one way street). She specializes in homemade style cooking and he is a very accommodating host, serving breakfast & lunch and closed on Sundays. Photos HollyEats.  
Queso Chihuahua: Available in the US. Unlike most Mexican cheeses which are white, this one is pale yellow and varies in flavor from mild to sharp. It is also called Queso Menonita, since it originated in the Mennonite communities of Northern Mexico. It is used for queso frito, a breaded fried cheese dish from the Caribbean. It is usually compared to a cheddar or a jack.
Queso Criollo: A mild cheese from Taxco that is very similar to Muester. I have not seen it in Isla Mujeres.
 Manchego IM Super   
Photo: Gringo in Paradise
Queso Manchego:  You will have no problem finding this cheese in Isla Mujeres; it is the most common cheese on the island. It is nothing like the cheese of the same name from Spain that is made from sheep's milk. It is a mild cheese made from cow's milk. There is a huge selection of it at "el Super", you may find it on your pizza, and at Jax your Nachos are smothered in it. It is buttery, soft, and mild in flavor. It is often compared to Monterrey Jack, and is popular for snacking and melting. 
Queso Manchego Viejo is an aged version of this cheese that is harder, saltier, and more of a condiment that is grated over dishes.

Queso Cotijta: A sharp crumbly cheese that originated in Cotija, Michoacan. It is called the Parmesan of Mexico and is sprinkled over beans, salads, soups and other dishes to add flavor. Like Parmesan it is often sold already grated. The aged version is called "anejo". Now Cotija is usually made from cow's milk and is described as "lively" or "zesty". It is not a snacking cheese, and is more of a condiment. It is also called Queso Anejo.

Caribbean Cheese:  
Duroblando: A firm cheese similar to Cotija, with a mild smokey flavor. 

 Queso Edam: A pale yellow Dutch cheese that travels well and does not spoil easily. It is coated in red wax and called "Queso de Bola" in Isla Mujeres. It is used to make a traditional Yucatan dish called "Queso Relleno" where it is stuffed with a ground pork mix called "Picadillo" which includes peppers, onions, tomatoes, raisins, capers, olives and herbs and spices. Then it is baked or steamed until the filling is hot and gooey.  It is a flavorful cheese that is popular for snacking with fruit.
 The Isla Mujeres Marquesita vendor has a sign that says "Queso de Bola" which means he uses Edam cheese to make this traditional treat. The following photos show him creating a Marquesita, which is a crispy crepe that is stuffed with Edam (and in this case Nutella)then rolled. Photos posted by Yolanda at Infojardin.


  1. Excellent and informative article! Very helpful too!!

  2. Great info! Look forward to trying all those delicious cheeses!

  3. Thanks! I love most of them, but gotta admit I am looking forward to the Chedraui bringing my old pals Cheddar, Bleu, & Jack to the isle. I am originally from Wisconsin, so being cheesy comes naturally.

  4. I loved this article. I visited IM last January and I'm going back this April. This helps my understanding of the mexican queso world and offers great tips on finding these. I saw vendors making marquesitas on my last trip but could not come to terms with the idea of mixing cheese and nutella.... Will try next time!