Rachel Laudan

The Answer! Queso Oaxaca’s a Recent Child of Mozzarella

At least so says Lila Lomelí who is one of the great experts on Mexican food.  That’s the answer to the question I posed last week about what regional Mexican foodstuff is in fact both recent and of Italian origin.  Alex and Ji Young came close.

In the 60s and 70s she and her husband Arturo, the two of them pioneers in consumer awareness and protection, traveled from one end to another of Mexico investigating the food. Lila’s been a journalist for years.  She’s also been one of the movers and shakers who has transformed the food scene in Mexico City, giving Mexican food a prominent place.

It is Lila’s firm belief, once volunteered and later confirmed in a second conversation, that it was an Italian dairy farmer who migrated to Oaxaca in the 1950s, who, with government encouragement taught Mexicans to make mozarella.  Over the years this gradually transformed into what is now called queso or quesillo oaxaca.  For those of you who don’t know this famous Mexican cheese, here’s a photo.  I’ve unraveled the cheese a bit so you can see the texture.

This claim, it need hardly be said, it apt to produce apoplexy in those who hear it.  All I can say, is Lila is someone I really trust and someone who would have no reason to make up such a story.

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20 thoughts on “The Answer! Queso Oaxaca’s a Recent Child of Mozzarella

  1. Bob Mrotek


    I am sure that Lilia believes that she is correct and I don’t want to hurt her feelings (or yours) but I don’t buy it. First of all true Mozarella comes from the milk of water buffalos, yes…I said water buffaloes. They had them in Italy at least until WW II and probably still do but not in Mexico. The pizza Mozarella that you buy in bags at the sooper is not really Mozarella. It’s…it’s…well it’s just junk cheese. I think that the process of making Mozarella and Queso Oxaca are similar but that’s where it ends. I believe that the process of making Queso Oaxaca or “queso asadero” goes back to shortly after the arrival of cows after the Conquista and if anything it is probably of Spanish origin.

  2. Adam Balic

    Stretched curd cheeses like this involved a pretty specific technique, so there isn’t that many places they could originate from. Italy (+Cyprus) and the Middle-East really. I’m not aware of these cheese in Spain for instance?

  3. Adam Balic

    “Mozzarella is a generic term, mozzarella made from water buffalo milk, which in Europe is sold as “mozzarella di bufala campana”, Mozzarella made from cows milk is mozzarella fior di latte (Although in Italy they are usually just called “mozzarella di bufala” and “Fior di latte”. There are a lot more cows then water buffalo, so the majority is Fior di latte. Both of these products are quite different to the low moisture commercial pizza cheese mozzarella (although it would be incorrect to assume that they are always artisan products).

    Anyway, these are just one type of stretched curd cheese (or pasta filata in Italian), provolone and haloumi are another. The Mexican cheese looks a lot like some of the stretched curd cheese I have seen in Turkey.

  4. Alex

    So, just because they don’t have water buffaloes in Mexico, it means that the Italians could have never introduced the cheese?

    Man is the mother of invention – make with what you have on hand – if you have dairy cows make cheese, don’t cry because you lack a buffalo.

    A year back when I was working as a cheese monger I tasted some mighty fine cow milk mozzarellas – both domestic and imported. So I have a hard time imagining they are using mozz di buffala on their pizzas in Italy. Possibly originally?

    I have to do the research but I want to believe the cheese to be a Spanish introduction too.

    I am very interested in the proximity of Cotija, Michoacan to Nueva Italia and the possible influence of Italian immigrants on Cotija cheese – even if its not Parma Italy…

  5. Rachel Laudan

    Lots of interesting stuff here plus a couple of off list emails from Bob Mrotek. Alex you or I or someone have to go and follow up the cotija connection. So many things to explore! But more posts on Mexican cheese coming up.

  6. Judith Klinger

    Piping up from Italy: Common mozzarella is indeed a general classification of cheese and it comes in infinite varieties: mozzarella di bufula and fior di latte being two of the most common. You won’t usually find fior di latte on a pizza because of the high moisture content….and you will pay more if you ask for mozzarella di buffala. There is even cow mozzarella’s that is wrapped in myrtle leaves (mozzarella nella mortella). Even buratta comes in both cow and water buffalo variations.

  7. shelora sheldan

    Fascinating stuff. There is another cheese readily available where I live that is so similar to the Oaxacan variety – Tresse or Armenian string cheese. Take a look on Google images for a close up.
    Maybe the Italians weren’t the only ones passing through Oaxaca town!

    Also, on the pizza issue. It’s been quite some time since I was in Naples, but there is a trend in North America for authentic Neopolitan pizza. Some of the stipulations to obtain VPN (Verace Pizza Napolitana) status are the use of San Marzano tomatoes and bufalo mozzarella on the pizza. With torn fresh basil, you have yourself the makings of a fine pizza Margherita.
    This type of pizzeria recently opened in my neighbourhood, and they offer both bufalo mozzarella – at a higher price – but the fiore de latte. Both are delicious.

    Living on Vancouver Island, we are blessed with an enterprising couple that keep a herd of waterbuffalo to produce the cheese.

  8. Rachel Laudan

    Shelora, are you the Shelora who posts a lot on Mexican food on various forums? If so, I’m delighted to have you here (if not, I’m delighted too). I’ve wondered about the Armenians myself. They are all over the world so there may well be some in Mexico lumped under the general term “Arabe.” But there doesn’t at the moment seem to be any evidence, even circumstantial evidence for this. But certainly worth further investigation. As is the question of the spotty distribution of string cheeses around the Mediterranean.

    The pizzas sound just delicious.

  9. shelora sheldan

    Hi Rachel,
    Yes, tis I.

    I’ve had only burrata once. Mozzarella on the outside, creamy cheese filling on the inside. Wow! I love cheese.
    I must suggest it to the water buffalo dairy here.

    Rachel, are you doing food research for a book? It’s such an intriguing question you’ve posed. The next time I’m in Oaxaca, I’m going to ask some of the older folks in the village for their take on its origins.

  10. Adam Balic

    Burrata is a sack of stretched curd filled with cream and scraps of mozzarella. It is so fragile that it is placed in a plastic bag and then wrapped in leaves (asphodel I think). The idea is that if the leaves are fresh then so is the cheese. Absolutely delicious.

  11. liz

    The oaxaca cheese was brought to mexico by the spanish conquistadors along with other types of cheese. They tought the indigenous people who to make this chees along with other foods of spanish origin. My grandma has been making this cheese since before the 50’s as did her mother, it’s a familly tradition. I think your friend has her history wrong.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Hmm Liz, you could be right. I’d love to know more about your mother and grandmother. Because I’m taking this from some of the great experts in Mexican cheese and Mexican cuisine.

  12. Jaime Flores

    The Oaxaca style cheese is made by allowing the milk to acidify and then adding the rennet, they do this by leaving the milk expose to room temperature (not refigerating) overnight and mixing equal volume of fresh milk ( recently milked) then adding half of the rennet called for that amount, this is called acid clotting, once the curd is formed and they whey is drain, the curd is heated ( by means of two pots, the outter with water the inner the curd) until it melts, and in a fast manner the curd is removed and stretched on a clean surface at the time it cools off is wraped in to a ball, and is ready.
    Other way to acidify the milk is by adding white vinegar.

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