Using a knife is all good but there’s something about pounding ingredients, scraping them against the rough surface, giving ”˜em a well-meaning thwack! that releases flavors deep within. I don’t even have to mention what an excellent stress reliever it is.
My kitchen table is littered with spices ”“ whole, ground, and in between ”“ the resulting aromatic funk colliding at the corner of exotic and odoriferous. I’m enraptured with it all but Boo is dismayed at the miasma she holds me personally responsible for; even my helpers have closed the door connecting my kitchen to theirs.
Today, I’m cooking Indian food, specifically chola (choleh? chana?) masala (I cannot vouch for the authenticity of my spelling), a chickpea curry of sorts; and aloo paneer, a spiced potato curry mixed with cubes of Indian cottage cheese (paneer). A disc of paratha (flaky, unleavened bread) glistening with ghee sits atop the counter, as well as a bottle of mango chutney. I can hardly wait.
This is my lunch, although it’s already 4:30pm. Multi-tasking mom that I aspire to be, I’ve also got a standing prime rib roast near the sink waiting to be cooked. That’s dinner.
As my two Indian dishes simmer in two different pots, I ready the paste for my prime rib: peppercorn mix, garlic cloves, sea salt, extra virgin olive oil, and blades of fresh rosemary. Gathering the ingredients into my hands, I’m about to dump the whole lot into my mortar and pestle when I stop suddenly. The mortar (bowl) is “perfumed” by the whole cardamoms that I’ve crushed into a pulp earlier. Cardamom-encrusted prime rib just won’t do. I could’ve washed my mortar and pestle, yeah, but I still have more cardamom-crunching to do later. Since I only own one mortar and pestle, I do the next best thing: I use the other end of the pestle and my chopping board becomes my new mortar. It’s hard work, I tell you. Peppercorns roll off the table and into dark corners. My prime rib paste is nowhere near as pasty as I’d like it to be and that’s when I decide it’s time to get another mortar and pestle.
The precursor to today’s food processor – if you will – mortars and pestles have been around for centuries. Most Asian and Mexican mortars and pestles have characteristic shapes and sizes and different names too. In the Philippines, we call it “pandikdik” or “dikdikan.” Made from hardy materials like wood, clay, marble, granite, and stone, the bat-shaped pestle is pounded downward then moved around in a circular motion. The friction of ingredient on bowl surface pulverizes [the] ingredient and frees numerous flavor essences. It can be laborious, yes ”“ labor of love? absolutely! ”“ but for serious cooks, it’s simply part of the craft inherent to cooking.
Rallying my chef-friends who all suggest Gourdo’s and Rustan’s as good places to look, I’m not satisfied, so I check online. There are some lust-worthy mortar and pestles I have my eye on but I find it obscene to pay nearly $100 total for a Thai mortar and pestle that’s in the States to be shipped back to me in Asia. Hello, Thailand is practically a neighbor! Then my dear friend, Imelda Go, owner of the always well-stockedÂ Chefs’ Nook, tells me that she might have what I’m looking for. I waste no time hauling ass to Mandaluyong and when I set eyes on it, I swear I can actually hear the darn thing calling to me.
Made in Thailand, my new mortar and pestle is made from solid granite. Sporting an extremely rough exterior, it measures 4.5 inches across, weighs 5 lbs., and has a 3-4 cup capacity. Its inside bowl is polished smooth and non-porous. I can’t ask for anything more. Even as I write this post, it’s beside me, still stained from the Vietnamese coffee beans that I ground in it for my morning coffee.
Thai mortar and pestle (quick, only 2 left!)
220 Pilar St., Addition Hills, Mandaluyong City.
Open Monday-Saturday, 9am-5:30pm.