The Mortar and Pestle

Craig McCord

Craig McCord › Craig possesses 23 guitars and cannot play any of them. He likes fresh grilled sardines with a ...


Our mortar and pestle gets a lively work out on a regular basis. Garlic, lemongrass, various spices–anything that needs to be made into a paste-like substance–gets a pounding in our kitchen.

By way of a little explanation, there’s the mortar and there’s the pestle.

These are an ingenious pair. The mortar is the bowl-shaped vessel, usually made of a hard wood, stone, or even ceramic. The taller of the two is the pestle, the club-shaped implement used to crush and grind the delicious, willing ingredients.

The classic Latin gave us mortarium, meaning ‘receptacle for pounding’ and English language morphed that word into mortar. Latin again, and its pistillum, led to the English pestle.

Our mortar and pestle gets a lively work out on a regular basis.

Aztec and Mayans were always out ahead of everybody with their use of the molcajete, a kind of pre-Hispanic mortar and pestle made of basalt. Evidence of them pounding away goes back several thousands years.

In Japan, their equivalent of mortars and pestles are used to make mochi, a kind of rice cake.

In India spice mixtures are created with their equivalent tools.

In West Asia meat is ground with lesung, (Malay for mortar and pestle) for a type of meatloaf or kibbeh.

In Indonesia and the Netherlands mortar is known as cobek or tjobek and pestle is known as ulekan or oelekan.

They often used to make fresh sambal, a spicy chili condiment, hence the sambal ulek/oelek denote its process using the pestle.

There are a couple of good reasons why these tools have been around so long and have traveled so far.

The design is close to perfect and, well, they work!

In a recent New York Tines article about mortar and pestles, Marc Meyer, executive chef and co-owner of Cookshop and several other Manhattan restaurants says:

“I insist on it for certain things, like garlic. I like the way garlic comes out when it is completely smashed: It becomes a purée and seems to dissolve into whatever you’re making.”

He has his mortar and pestle preferences.

Granite or wood. Chef thinks these materials make them more multi-purpose. Metal is noisy and could affect taste.

The shape is also important, he added. A pestle that’s long and narrow encourages different hand motions than a short, round one, and that affects the way food is ground or mashed.

When Rima Suqi, the author the Times article suggests to Mr. Meyer that perhaps it could ‘double as a tool for anger management’.

“There’s definitely some aggression you can manage with these things,” he said.

So, there you go, another use for a mortar and pestle!

We learned from our friend, Chef Zakary Pelaccio just how important the mortar and pestle could be in the kitchen when we captured him having fun making a salad dressing.

Have a look at the video above.

Get yourself a mortar and pestle and start using it!

If you already have a mortar and pestle, what do you use it for in your kitchen?

Photo credit: Slow Films