I may belong to the so-called Generation Y, but I’m actually quite old-fashioned when it comes to cooking. I prefer to cook using traditional, time-tested methods where possible, although it may be more laborious. Despite advances in modern technology, I find that certain things just can’t be replaced by a whiz-bang kitchen appliance.
The humble mortar and pestle is one of them. Used throughout Southeast Asia, the mortar and pestle is used to grind spices, blend curry pastes, tenderise meat, and pulverise various ingredients into magical spice pastes called rempah.
As a child I would often be roped into kitchen duty, and one of my usual tasks would be to help my mother make rempah. Mum would hand me a large bowl of chopped onions, chillies and dried shrimp, and it would be my job to pound the lot with the mortar and pestle. So for the next hour or so, I would sit on my little plastic stool in front of the heavy stone mortar, working away. My reward would be the heavenly dishes Mum would whip up for dinner that evening with the resulting spice paste.
Those early memories have always stayed with me, because to this day I refuse to make rempah in a food processor. To me, a food processor can never recreate the heady aroma and crushed texture of a curry or spice paste from a mortar and pestle.
While pounding ingredients in a mortar and pestle is a time-consuming process, the results are definitely worth the effort. As ingredients are pounded together, their fragrant oils and flavours are released, which then combine to create something truly magical. The result is an aromatic, intensely flavoured paste that holds together beautifully, neither runny or watery.
Needless to say, the mortar and pestle is one of my most treasured kitchen items. The one I currently own (shown above) was picked up at a Chinese imports store in Sydney. I liked it so much, I took it along with me when I moved interstate to Melbourne.
It’s a bit small, but extremely solid as it’s made from solid granite. There’s even a Chinese inscription carved on the outside, ji xiang ru yi (吉祥如意). Loosely translated, it means, ‘may good fortune come according to your wishes’.
If you love cooking Asian food, I definitely recommend getting a mortar and pestle. For general kitchen use, get a mortar and pestle made of solid granite. Wooden ones are mainly used to prepare Thai or Vietnamese salads, while porcelain ones are not suitable for heavy-duty use.
Some purchasing tips: there’s no need to buy a celebrity chef-branded mortar and pestle. While most of them are of good quality, they are usually overpriced. A trip to a large Asian kitchen store or grocery in your local Chinatown should yield a similar made-in-Thailand model at a reasonable price. Look for one with a deep bowl as ingredients tend to fly out if you’re new to pounding in a mortar and pestle.