By Lia Huber
I have a thing for mortars and pestles. Part of my fascination, I think, comes from the fact that they’re so utterly primitive. They don’t have a plug. They don’t make motorized noise. They don’t even have a sharp edge. Even the name—mortar and pestle—is simple when traced back to its Latin source: “mortarium” means receptacle for pounding and “pestillum” means pounder.
But don’t let the simplistic nature fool you into thinking they’re not useful tools. I use mine far more often than my food processor. With just a few whacks and a pinch of salt, garlic and herbs are rendered into a pungent paste; spices are crushed to fragrant bits; simple vegetables are transformed into a surprisingly full-flavored sauce. And you get to let off steam while taking in a little aromatherapy.
Part of what makes mortars and pestles so effective is that pounding ruptures the cells in food, as opposed to slicing or processing which semi-cauterizes them. That’s why one clove of pounded garlic can taste and smell so much more powerful than three cloves of minced.
No wonder nearly every culture has created its own version over the millennia. Each is made of materials abundant in a particular region and fashioned for the culinary needs of a particular cuisine. In France, they tend to be deep bowls made of marble. In Southeast Asia, they’re conical and often made of clay with a wooden mortar. In Latin America, you’ll find giant stone receptacles called molcajetes with a nubbin of a pestle called a tejolete.
It was a quest for the perfect molcajete, in fact, that cemented my infatuation with the tool. My husband and I were on an extended road trip from San Francisco to Costa Rica and had just spent a week in Cuernavaca, Mexico, taking a cooking class. Many modern sauces are now made in blenders, but the dishes that stole the show for me were the ones we pounded in the behemoth basalt molcajetes. The following week, when we paused in Oaxaca for a couple of weeks, I was determined to find the perfect version amidst the city’s sprawling market.
We searched for hours and hours and had almost given up when we turned the corner and spotted it—wide and irregular and pitted and rough. A tiny woman rose to her feet in front of the stall. Her face crinkled into a smile and as we looked each other in the eyes I could see a joy that matched my own. It felt, somehow, like we’d been seeking one another. We made the exchange and shared a hug, and Christopher and I packed up the molcajete for the remainder of the drive. Later, when we pulled the bowl out in our Costa Rica kitchen, I noticed that the bowl had writing around the edge—Recuerdo de Oaxaca, memories of Oaxaca.
I hope that woman knows how rich they are.