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Mortar and pestle – an indispensable kitchen tool, when cooking Thai food

Mortar and pestle – an indispensable kitchen tool, when cooking Thai food

I will soon begin posting recipes, that require using curry pastes. They are traditionally made by using a mortar and pestle, so I just thought I would take a few minutes to introduce this simple tool. Mortars and pestles are nothing new. Scientists have found some that date back to approximately 35,000 BC., but it might be non-existing or new in your kitchen.

The sound of the mortar and pestle can be heard around the villages throughout Thailand on a daily basis. I often wake up in the morning to the steady sound of pounding from my neighbor’s house. A sure sign they are eating traditional Thai food made from scratch.

Why use a mortar and pestle?

You can’t get around needing a mortar and pestle when making curry pastes from scratch. Well…. that is not entirely true. You can – but not if you want to release the maximum flavor and aroma from the herbs and spices.

The reason is simple: although most plants are dry in appearance, they are loaded with fluids and flavors. This is especially noticeable when you are working with spices and roots that are high in fiber, such as lemongrass, galangal, and kaffir lime peel – all commonly used as base ingredients in Thai curry pastes. They appear very dry, but on the inside, they are packed with essential oils and aromatic flavors. A mortar and pestle crush the plants releasing the full range of flavors, while a blade cuts through them. Using a mortar and pestleThe pounding will reduce the fluids and fibers to a moist paste, melting the flavors into one, and the combined taste will be better than the sum of each ingredient. In essence, crushing is far more effective than cutting, as you will achieve a more distinctive and stronger depth of flavor, than if you were preparing the ingredients with a food processor.

There is also something else besides flavor to consider, and that is quantity. If you want to crush just a single chili or a few peppercorns – it can prove challenging in a food processor. You need a certain amount of ingredients to be successful at that, even in the smallest blender. In a mortar, you can easily crush just a single peppercorn.

What do I use myself?

For some reason, I assume, you care to know…. 🙂

Before I knew much about cooking Thai food, I bought one at the supermarket. I didn’t think much about what I was going to use it for, so I just picked one that I thought looked nice. My Thai friends laughed when they saw it: “This is soooo cute – what are you going to make in that?” Well – that was a good question, which at the time, I didn’t have any answer to. I ended up mostly using it for cracking coriander seeds and cumin.

When I got serious about cooking Thai food, it dawned on me why they had been so amused. I could hardly make anything in it without the ingredients flying over the edges, creating a ring on the table. So, I went to the Warorot market in Chiang Mai and got myself a better one. And what exactly would I consider a “good” mortar and pestle?

What to look for, when buying a mortar and pestle:

  • Size is definitely important! Don’t get one that is too small. Bigger is certainly better. The one I use is 14 cm.on the inside diameter. Even if that is a fairly good size, it is sometimes too small and I have to divide the curry paste into two to get it evenly pounded. But for the most part, it covers my Thai cooking needs.
  • Surface structure – I prefer to use one which is not too smooth or highly polished inside. If too smooth it will be slippery, causing the ingredients to jump out. A rougher surface creates more friction to grip the ingredients and makes pounding a lot easier. But don’t go overboard as overly rough and porous surfaces are difficult to clean.
  • Heft – look for one in a material with a substantial heft to it, such as granite or marble. They can withstand heavy grinding and also remain firm in one place while working. Those in lighter materials tend to slide across the kitchen table.
  • Shape – a deeply rounded well is most effective as it will contain the ingredients better. In shallow mortars, the ingredients tend to squirt and fly out.

It’s a matter of personal preference as to which mortar and pestle to get… there are plenty of options out there, and they all have their pros and cons.

But the Cole and Mason Granite Mortar and Pestle, 18 cm., is definitely topping the list, of what I would love to buy if I ever have to replace the one, I currently use. You can see it being demonstrated below:


It is created out of superior quality black granite, cut in a beautiful wavy shape, and finished off with a sleek, polished finish on the outside, and a rougher surface on the inside. It serves my needs for both style and functionality. The base is wide, helping it to stay firm on the table while working. I also like, that it has a deep well and that you can use both ends of the handle depending on the purpose. The C & M mortar and pestle comes in two sizes: 14 cm. and 18 cm.

An upgrade is not likely to happen anytime soon though, because once you have a mortar and pestle, it will last you for a lifetime. Which is a good reason why, you should make sure to go for the very best, when you decide to invest in this indispensable kitchen tool.

Care and cleaning:

Rinse well with warm water after use, then dry. Avoid using soap. Though it is not clearly visible to the naked eye, the stone has a porous surface which can trap the scent and take on a soapy flavor. If you are concerned about bacteria, you can rub it with half a lemon. Let it sit for a couple of minutes, give it another rinse, and then let it dry. Using the lemon will also help minimize staining.

Cleaning it up after use is really a breeze. I think you will find that a mortar and pestle will surpass its electric counterparts in terms of ease of use and clean up. It doesn’t get more simple than this!

If you buy a new one and find any chalk left from the machining process, clean it up by pouring in some rice and grind until powdery. Discard and rinse with warm water. Repeat until the mortar is entirely free from chalk. I didn’t know about this when I bought mine, so I just went ahead and started using it after a quick rinse. But it sounds like a good tip, which is why I am passing it on.

A word of encouragement to the undecided:

If you want to expand your collection of cookware…… get a mortar and pestle!! I don’t think, you will regret the investment. It is a very versatile tool for many purposes in the kitchen. Besides making Thai curry pastes, you can use it for making things such as guacamole, hummus, pesto, salsa, cracking up nuts, and to grind dry spices into powder. Once you have tasted freshly grounded herbs and spices, it is hard to go back to buying pre-ground.

It is heavy and bulky and will take up some space in the kitchen, but it is a small sacrifice for all the good flavors, tastes and delicious meals, that will come as a result of incorporating this tool into your cooking.

And if you already have one, but hardly ever use it, now is the time to get it down from the shelf and dust it off!

Another little piece of info, before you go…..

Mortar and pestle Thai styleI like the decorative effect of having a mortar and pestle on the countertop of my kitchen. I always keep it in the “whole up, pestle inside” position.

The Thais however always store it upside down, with the pestle at its side. They are so adamant about this being the correct way to do it, that when I have Thai guests over to my house, and they see my mortar and pestle, they usually turn it around. The habit is just so rooted in them, that they can’t leave me doing it my way. Since I choose my battles, I just let them do it – and turn it back around when they are gone. 🙂 I thought the reason for this was found in the fact, that most Thai kitchens are outdoors, with geckos, spiders, cockroaches and other types of bugs running around, along with a fair amount of dust and dirt. So turning it upside down would be a cleaner solution. But since my kitchen is indoors, I don’t see the need.

But while preparing to make this post, I decided to investigate it a bit – and it turns out, they believe it brings luck! Perhaps, after all, I will change to the downward position going forward, as I could definitely use some of that!

Mortar and pestle upside down

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