Quelites Are A Mexican Tradition. Sold In Markets. Discover What Quelites Are & Which Might Grow In UK Gardens.
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What Are Quelites?
“Quelite” is derived from the Nahuatl word quilitl, which most sources claim means “edible plant or weed”. Other translate the word as ”tender and edible green” or even “edible grass”. But, whatever definition you choose, the plants vary from region to region as they are typical of that region. I.e. it’s what is edible and grows locally. What seems to be more generally accepted is that these are wild plants, not cultivated plants. though that is vague when people encourage wild plants to grow in their garden.
So, not all sources agree that a cultivated plant can be classed as a quelite. And the word is a bit vague in some ways … just like the word “weed” is in English. It means different things to different people.
To be more specific quelites are the leaves, buds, shoots, petioles, stems and even flowers of various herbaceous plants that are considered edible in Mexico. With few exceptions, they are wild herbs, this means that they are not cultivated, but rather collected. The season for collecting quelites occurs in the rainy season, when the drought ends and the agricultural cycle begins.
Quelites, though foraged, are often sold in local markets.
Sources Of Information on Quelites & A Recipe
Obtaining info on qualities isn’t easy. Or at least not in English. Wikipedia doesn’t have anything in English. But, fortunately, the Spanish version of Wikipedia does.
So, much of the rest of this post is derived from the Spanish post that I’ve summarised. If you are fluent in Spanish I suggest you read the original quelites post … not my rendition!
I did find one small post in English that was useful. It contains a recipe, which is vague enough to prove much of what I’ve already written. Here’s the link to “My Great Aunt’s Green’s Recipe”
More On Quelites
Quelites are the leaves, buds, shoots, petioles, stems and even flowers of various herbaceous plants that are considered edible in Mexico. With few exceptions, they are wild herbs, this means that they are not cultivated, but rather collected. The season for collecting quelites occurs in the rainy season, when the drought ends and the agricultural cycle begins.
These are species that belong to different botanical families, and the majority are native American, although they also include many others. brought from the Old World, such as watercress, cow’s tongue or turnip leaf. Depending on the sources, the number of quelite species varies between 200-1000.
Gastronomically, quelites are leafy vegetables, and are included fresh in salads, or cooked in stews, soups, stir-fries… etc. Others, however, are aromatic herbs and are used as a condiment.
Many quelites are wild herbs, such as xonequi, tequelite, acedillo or basiáwari, while some sources claim that domesticated plants , such as pumpkin flowers, purslane, chaya or romeritos can be included. Forgive me if I don’t translate all these plants, I don’t understand the local names.
Some are common throughout the country, such as epazote, purslane or huauzontle, while others are more typical of a particular region, such as alache in Hidalgo, chepil in Oaxaca or chaya in Yucatán.
It is however interesting to see some of these, as they grow in the UK. For example I’m hoping to add huauzontale to our food forest this year. And Chenopodium album, Fat Hen, is a weed here.
As explained earlier, sources vary, but some say the most common term referring to edible plants is “quelite” which in Nahuatl (quilitl) is generic for any plant, vegetable or herbaceous. Other frequent terms include xocoquilitl, tomaquilitl.
Another common name is kuarra. In Chihuahua they are also referred to as mecuasares. The name also varies depending on the indigenous community. We shouldn’t be surpassed by this as in English we have dialect words for common items as we all different names for plants depending where we live.
According to the RAE, the land where quelites grow is called “quelital’, and “quelitero” is the person who collects them. We’d say forager!
There are negative social consideration of the term quelites (“poor people’s food”), especially In rural areas, so calling someone a quelitero is often regarded as being derogatory about them.
From the various codices written shortly after the Spanish conquest we know that the indigenous people had been eating quelites since pre-Hispanic times. In chapter VII of the eleventh book of the General History of the Things of New Spain codex (1585; popularly known as the Florentine Codex), nearly 100 types of quillitl are recorded and it is explained that the indigenous people eat them raw, or cooked.
Historically, in Mexican agriculture quelites have had little economic impact as they were considered “poor people’s food”. However their function in the pre-Hispanic diet is fundamental, Indeed many indigenous desert cultures have survived droughts thanks to the consumption of quelites. Quelites were also essential further north for the development of pre-colonial agriculture in the Great Plains, in present-day United States, where however they have now completely disappeared.
In the context of the industrialisation of food, a slow process that has been taking place throughout the world since the 20th century, quelites have been displaced by mass food, their production has been reduced and their consumption has almost disappeared in the large cities in the Mexico. In contrast, the chinampas, the rotating system of the cornfields and other fundamental elements of the Mesoamerican agricultural tradition did not disappear with Spanish colonisation. One wonders why!
According to the National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity (CONABIO) of the Government of Mexico, the forms of quelite management (that is, human intervention) vary from minor to major.
For example, quelites exist
*In the wild state, where human intervention is nil or very minimal.
When practices aimed at maintaining, within modified environments, useful plants that existed before the environments were transformed by humans are included.
Where protected, such as where action is taken to eliminate competitors and predators, or where the application of fertilisers, pruning and protection against frost… etc., is managed in order to safeguard some useful plants.
where quelites are promoted. Especially, when strategies aimed at increasing its production on a large scale are included.
List of Mexican Quelites
Being herbs consumed locally in different regions, the same quelite can have many names. It is also possible that different species of the same genus, very similar to each other, could have a single name. For this reason, this list is organized according to the scientific name, with the different common names next to it. If it is consumed in a specific region, it is indicated in parentheses.
Forgive me for not translating. In many cases there is no literal translation and I believe it best we keep to Latin nomenclature.
- Amaranthus hybridus: quintonil (centro),
- Amaranthus palmeri: quintonil (noreste),
- Amaranthus retroflexus: quintonil
- Amaranthus blitoides: quintonil (norte y centro)
- Amaranthus cruentus: quintonil (centro y sur).
- Anoda cristata: alache
- Arracacia edulis: basiáwari
- Arthrostemma ciliatum: acedillo
- Brassica napus: hoja de nabo
- Brassica rapa: flor de nabo
- Chenopodium album: quelite cenizo
- Chenopodium nuttalliae: huauzontle
- Cicer arietinum: quelite de garbanzo (Sinaloa)
- Cnidoscolus aconitifolius: chaya
- Colocasia esculenta: malanga, makal, quelite de cobija, camote malango
- Cosmos parviflorus
- Crotalaria longirostrata: chepil, chipil, chipilín
- Cucurbita: de la calabaza, se consideran quelites las guías y las flores
- Dysphania ambrosioides: epazote
- Erythrina caribaea: gásparo
- Euphorbia graminea: quelite fraile, onob-kax (maya), yiwa xuxua (mixteco)
- Evolvulus alsinoides
- Heliconia schiedeana: papatla, papatlahuac
- Hydrocotyle ranunculoides: malacote
- Ipomoea dumosa: xonequi
- Jacobina candicans: quelite de invierno, sehuáchili (tarahumara), espuela de caballero (Sinaloa),
- Lepidium virginicum: pata de cuervo, mixixiquilitl (náhuatl), putka o putxiu (maya), so’chili (tarahumara), xixinda (náhuatl), comida de pájaro (Jalisco), lentejilla (CdMX), mixixi (Puebla).12
- Leucaena leucocephala: huaxquelite
- Liabum glabrum
- Monarda austromontana
- Peperomia lenticularis
- Peperomia peltilimba: tequelite
- Phytolacca icosandra: jabonera, mazorquita
- Piper auritum: hoja santa, hierba santa, acuyo, tlanepa
- Pisum sativum: quelite de chícharo
- Porophyllum tagetoides: pipicha
- Porophyllum macrocephalum: pápalo, papaloquelite
- Portulaca oleracea: verdolaga
- Quercus crassifolia: hoja de encino
- Rumex crispus: lengua de vaca, quelite de amamashtlatl, quelite de amamastla
- Rumex hymenosepalus: lengua de vaca, quelite de amamashtlatl, quelite de amamastla
- Salvia misella: lengua de toro
- Sechium edule: guías de chayote
- Sinclairia glabra
- Solanum americanum: hierbamora, yerbamora
- Solanum nigrum: hierbamora, yerbamora
- Solanum nigrescens: hierbamora, yerbamora
- Sonchus oleraceus: quelite de cristiano, quistianoquilit (náhuatl), lechuguilla, caxta’lan kak (totonaco)
- Stellaria ovata: quelite de llovizna, ahuechquilit (náhuatl), sca’ma (totonaco), matanza (El Tajín, Veracruz
- Suaeda torreyana: romerito
- Tinantia erecta: pata de gallo
- Xanthosoma robustum: mafafa
- Xanthosoma sagittifolium: anona, macal, ¿quelite de tarabundín?
- Xanthosoma violaceum: apish, caporte de jardín, tequescamote
- Xanthosoma yucatense: macal
Growing Quelites In the UK
I had hoped to write specific cultivation instruction on many quelites but time has beat me for now. My suggestion is you google the Latin names and seek instruction from there. Not all will grow in the UK, But some, eg epazote, is a chenopdium and some species already grow here as weeds. So it might be possible to grow it here. Indeed C. Album is a weed here.
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