Hispanic cuisine may be hot and spicy but the cheeses of Mexico and the Caribbean are not. The most popular cheeses in this region are fresh white varieties. And though they trend toward the mild side, these cheeses add rich, creamy flavour to an astounding number of local recipes.
Today cheesy Mexican and Caribbean dishes like enchiladas, chile rellenos, and queso frito (fried cheese) are famous throughout the world. So it’s hard to imagine that before Spanish colonisation, the inhabitants of what is now Mexico lived largely on a diet of fruit and vegetables. The art of cheese making was not known here until the conquering Spaniards brought cows and goats to the area.
In the Mexican state of Chihuahua, cheese is still made from the milk of cattle originally descended from Europe. And in other famous cheese making areas like Oaxaca, Queretaro, and Chiapas, cheese monger stalls (puestos de queseros) are brimming with cheeses packed into baskets, rolled like twine, or wrapped in corn husks.
The best cheeses from Mexico and the Caribbean look, cook, and taste differently to American or European cheeses, and they are well worth experiencing:
When heated, the fresh white cheeses of Mexico and the Caribbean become warm and soft, without melting. Traditionally, they were crafted by local artisans and delivered to market wrapped in banana leaves.
Queso Blanco is a traditional fresh cow’s milk cheese often described as a cross between salty cottage cheese and Italian Mozzarella. Artisans traditionally coagulate the curd with lemon juice, giving the cheese a creamy, but crisp citrus flavour.
Panela (Queso de Canasta)
The most popular fresh cheese in Mexico, this mild white cheese retains the imprint from the basket in which it’s made. Soft and crumbly, Panela can be found in many varieties, even coated with garlic and chilli paste or wrapped in toasted avocado leaves.
Queso Para Freir
Popular in the Caribbean and South America, this mild white cheese is a variation of Queso Blanco, but firmer and saltier. Because it resists melting, Queso Para Freir is excellent for fried dishes such as the popular Queso Frito (breaded fried cheese).
Queso Fresco (Adobera)
The most commonly used Hispanic variety, this soft, spongy white cheese is made from a combination of cow and goat’s milk. It has a slightly salty flavour and a mild, fresh acidity. The fine-grained texture is favoured for crumbling over enchiladas and taquitos for added flavour.
Mexican and Caribbean melting cheeses are generally smooth textured with a mild flavour and modest acidity. These cheeses are culinary wonders because they do not separate into solids and oils when heated.
This soft, smooth cow’s milk cheese has a mild, creamy flavour and somewhat elastic texture. The white cheese is a family favourite for snacking and melting into savoury dishes and quesadillas. A variety called Queso Jalapeno has bits of jalapenos mixed into the paste for an extra zesty flavour.
This pale yellow cow’s milk cheese is also called Queso Menonita after the Mennonite communities of northern Mexico where it was first made. Chihuahua is mild, salty, and slight sour, but turns tangy, sharp and almost Cheddar-like with age. It is often used to make fundido (Mexican fondue) and queso frito
Queso Oaxaca (Asadero)
This famous cow’s milk cheese from the Oaxaca region is a stretched curd variety similar in texture to Provolone. White or pale yellow, the semi-soft cheese is kneaded and wound into balls before being plunged into brine for several minutes. It has a mild to sweet and buttery flavour.
Queso Media Luna
A popular cheese in Puerto Rico, this common Caribbean cheese is also known as Queso de Papa. It is a Colby-type cheese with an orange colour and firm, moist texture. The smooth mild to tangy flavour is perfect for snacking or baking.
The hard, grating style cheeses of Mexico and the Caribbean generally have a strong flavour and dry, crumbly texture. Traditionally, they were made by leaving salted fresh cheese outdoors to age for up to a year.
Cotija (Queso Anejado)
This sharp, aged cheese is known as the “Parmesan of Mexico.” Named for the town of Cotija, Michoacan where it originated, the firm, strongly flavoured variety was traditionally made with goat’s milk, but today cow’s milk is preferred. With a distinctive salty taste, Cotija makes a lively garnish for refried beans, salads, chili, or pasta.
This firm pressed cheese is rolled in paprika or mild chili powder to give it a distinctive red coating and slightly piquant flavour. Made with skimmed goat’s milk or cow’s milk, it has a hard, dry texture that softens but does not melt under heat. Anejo Enchilada makes a fantastic snack served with a tequila or Michelada, a spicy Mexican beer cocktail.