Mortar and pestle: a primitive kitchen tool. You place ingredients in a stone or ceramic bowl and pound them with a small club.
When Mum gave me a mini-sized mortar and pestle set as a house-warming gift a few years ago, I groaned silently.
I knew how to use one. Since young, Mum mwould make me pound fresh turmeric when I requested for my favourite fried chicken fix, turmeric fried chicken.
But by Jove did I detest the mortar and pestle with a passion.
The M & P can be such a PAIN to use. My arms ached after pounding the fresh turmeric for ayam goreng kunyit. And boy, can the process get messy. When I pound spices and aromatics to make chilli paste, there would be bits of ginger, garlic, chilli, galangal flying everywhere – on my face, on the wall, on the floor, which I had to mop AFTER pounding. Not fun.
So I didn’t touch it for ages (Sorry Mum).
After all, I had my nifty, modern, infinitely easier-to-use food processor.
Then when I got more serious about cooking, I found that my food processor couldn’t quite cut it, especially when it came to making pastes for curries and stews.
I read up articles and watched videos to learn why.
This article says: “A food processor shears and shreds the ingredients, tearing apart and breaking down vegetables, but not necessarily rupturing all of their cells to release aromatic compounds. A mortar and pestle, on the other hand, does a great job of actually crushing individual cells, producing a curry paste with much better flavor.
My friend David Ong-Yeoh puts it this way:
“It is the pounding of the ingredients that releases the essential oils in them and blends them together together in forced harmony.”
Some chefs suggest adding water to the food processor when grinding spices to make the paste more “lumat”, but from my experience, the M&P still produces the better result.
What’s great is that with more practice, I have managed to control my movements so the bits don’t fly all over the place anymore. Nowadays when I sit cross-legged facing the stone basin and pound away rhythmically, I find the action oddly therapeutic.
I’ve also found other, non-traditional ways of using it. The deceptively primitive looking M&P can be very versatile.
1. I use it to smash honey graham biscuits to make the base crust for chocolate ganache tart.
2. I use it to crumble salted fish, which is too dry and hard to be minced finely by knife.
3. I use it to smash bread crumbs for my baked mustard chicken.
Chefs these days may use all sorts of high-tech tools, but my mum knew what the humble mortar and pestle could do.
Thanks Mum. You’ll be happy to know that your thoughtful gift has a place in my kitchen – and heart – that can never be replaced.