You might have seen a mortar and pestle in your grandmother's kitchen. You might even have used them together once or twice to pound garlic. But did you know that this pair of cooking tools is thousands of years older than the Roman Catholic Church? Did you also know that the mortar and pestle are drug paraphernalia?
My grandparents had one. It was marble. It was so old that although it must have been white once, it had turned grayish. My grandfather never cooked without that mortar and pestle. It was so integral in their kitchen that it had a permanent place on the counter.
My father had a mortar and pestle too. While marble just like his parents’. Growing up, it seemed to me that the heavy bowl and club always sat beside the cast iron wok that my father loved to cook in.
Despite their attachment to the strange tool, I had no affinity with it. I don’t remember having one in the seven years that we lived in our first house. I had my blender and, later, my food processor, and I was content with them.
Shortly after selling our first house and moving into the second, Speedy bought a wooden mortar and pestle. I used it for pounding garlic, and not much else. When the bowl broke in half, Speedy bought a new one. White marble, this time. It was around the time when I was first learning Malaysian and Thai cooking. Making rendang for the first time, I stubbornly refused to do it the traditional way by grinding the spice paste with a mortar and pestle. My rendang tasted great so, surely, there was no earthly reason to punish my hand and arm when pushing a button could do the job just as well and in a fraction of the time too.
Then, I cooked rendang a second time. Friends from law school were coming over and I wanted to serve a truly authentic rendang for dinner. I took the mortar and pestle, placed them on the kitchen island, dumped the spices into the bowl and started grinding. I had been at it for a long time already and there were still chunks in the mixture. I debated whether to dump the sad-looking spice paste into the food processor and have it done with.
But I was gunning for “authentic”, wasn’t I, so I went on grinding. ‘Round and ’round my wrist went. It was aching. And I was sure that blisters were starting to form on the palm of my hand. By the time the spice paste looked like a real paste, I was ready to vow never to cook rendang that way again. But, something happened over dinner.
When I served the rendang to my friends, as most Asians do, they poured the sauce over the rice. After the first mouthfuls, the first comment was, “Sarsa pa lang, ulam na (the sauce by itself is good enough for a main dish)!” That overhauled my perspective on the use of the mortar and pestle. There is a marked difference between a spice paste made in the food processor and one made slowly using a mortar and pestle. The manual grinding releases the oils of herbs and spices in a way that no machine can replicate.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that in all cases I will choose the mortar and pestle over the blender and food processor. No. I’m a modern woman. I like technology and the conveniences that it offers. Nine times out of ten, I will still choose convenience. What changed was the way I thought about old-style cooking and traditional cooking tools. I learned to treat both with more respect. And I have even more respect for the cooks of bygone days who managed to feed their families with delicious dishes like rendang with no help from modern tools and appliances. That is inspiring.
Who invented the mortar and pestle?
As to who exactly, well, I can’t give you a name. But, according to The Origins and development of ground stone assemblages in Late Pleistocene Southwest Asia, tools used for grinding began to appear during the Upper Paleolithic era (Late Stone Age) which covers the period between 50,000 and 10,000 years ago.
The linked article also says grinding tools like the mortar and pestle “have long been recognized as a central feature in the development of early farming communities in the Near East.” Although the term “Near East” fell into disuse long ago, according to National Geographic, Near East is what we know today as the Middle East and “it is generally accepted as comprising the countries of the Arabian Peninsula, Cyprus, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestinian territories, Syria, and Turkey. At its maximum it would extend from Morocco to Bangladesh.”
Variants of the mortar and pestle were also in use beyond the Near East. The Mexican molcajete, South American matete and the South Asian batan are all, in essence, mortars and pestles.
What can be ground using the mortar and pestle?
Most of us know that the mortar and pestle is great for pounding garlic but what other uses do they serve?
Making spice pastes and sauces. I mentioned the spice paste for rendang earlier but that’s only one example.
My daughter, Alex, uses the mortar and pestle to grind rock salt and celery seeds to make celery salt.
In Italy, the traditional way to make pesto is to grind the basil, garlic and pine nuts using a mortar and pestle. Olive oil is drizzled in little by little until the mixture turns pasty. Grated Parmesan cheese is stirred in afterwards.
In Mexico, the mortar and pestle is the traditional tool for making guacamole.
In regions where rice is grown, the traditional way to separate the grain from the husk is to pound the palay using a stone grinder that resembles an oversized mortar and pestle. Before there were rice mills and machines, it was the standard tool.
Even today, there are still places where the oversized mortar and pestle are used to pound palay. In some cases, for rituals and ceremonies; in other cases, out of necessity in places where modern machinery is not accessible or affordable. Use the keyphrase “pounding palay” to search Google images and see what I mean.
Despite its early association with food preparation, the mortar and pestle have also long been used as drug paraphernalia to pound pills.
But, in today’s world with all modern food appliances at our fingertips, do the mortar and pestle really have any room in the kitchen of the average cook? Well, look at it this way. If you’re making two tablespoons of gremolata for your osso buco, do you really want to take out the food processor and wash all its moveable parts when you can use the mortar and pestle, and wash only two small items without grooves and crevices?
Made of what material should the mortar and pestle be?
Ahhhh… there is no single answer to that. Stone, rock (like marble and granite), brass, iron, wood… each has its pros and cons. Personally, I’ve only used mortar and pestle made of wood and marble.
Wood is more lightweight than stone and rock but it also absorbs tastes and aromas of food ground with it. If you crush peppercorns then mince garlic, there’s a high chance that the garlic will have a smell and taste of pepper. Grooves between wood grains may also trap small pieces of food that can rot and cause serious health problems. And insufficient drying after washing wooden mortar and pestle can lead to the growth of molds.
Marble works best for me. Hard but not brittle. Takes years and years to corrode. Smooth and without crevices where food can get trapped. Can be washed thoroughly after every use.
What is the correct way to use the mortar and pestle?
The mortar and pestle set is a rotary hand grinder. If you’re just pounding your food in the bowl using the pestle, you’re doing it wrong. The grinding consists of two steps:
First, pound the food.
Second, after the food has been broken into smaller pieces, grind it using continuous circular motions. It’s all in the wrist. Think of your wrist as the axis and your hand holding the pestle goes ’round and ’round. Keep at it until the food is ground to the desired consistency.
Simple but effective, eh? And so fascinating how the Stone Age people came up with the idea that we know today as mortar and pestle.