The Mortar and Pestle: Fundamental Cooking Equipment
The mortar and pestle is considered to be necessary cooking equipment in Thailand. The other essential implements for preparing food in a Thai kitchen are very few: a wok, a wok spatula, a small cooking pot
with lid, a sharp cleaver, a rice spoon for serving and a wooden cutting board. Usually the mortar and pestle of choice is granite but the clay type is also popular.
In the modern Thai kitchen you will now also usually find an electric rice cooker and sometimes a small electric blender for making curry pastes. But these electronic devices have not entirely won over everyone. Some still insist that the old ways produce a superior dish. For example, some
still cook rice outdoors on the traditional clay stove using charcoal. Even more still use the granite mortar and pestle every day to pound their own pastes for curries and for other Thai dishes like Nam Prik (spicy chili paste).
The reason why the granite mortar and pestle has not entirely been
replaced is that indeed it does produce a more delicious paste. Instead of grinding up the fresh herbs and spices with a metal blade, these ingredients are pounded to release and meld all of their natural oils and juices. The
metal blade merely cuts the ingredients up and mixes them. But the heavy stone pestle pounds the ingredients in a way that an electric device cannot.
Health Benefits of Using a Mortar and Pestle
Beyond the idea that the pounding of the pestle can be meditative and help to alleviate stress there may be other health benefits of using your mortar and pestle.
The basic ingredients in Thai curry paste all contain some amount of potassium: dried red chilis (5.3g, 106mg); fresh lemon grass (1 cup,484mg); turmeric (dried, 2.2g, 55mg); raw garlic (3 cloves,36mg) and
sea salt [Source: USDA Nutrient Database]. When pastes are pounded in the granite mortar and pestle over time and eaten daily, some of the infinitely tiny particles of the pestle and bowl get into the food. This is
evidenced when you see a mortar and pestle that someone has had in their family for over 25 years. The pestle wears down and the bowl is also worn away. I am not a nutritionist so if
anyone has any input on this please e-mail me.
The Past and The Future of the Mortar and Pestle
Just ten years ago in Thailand it was an every day occurrence to wake up to the rhythmic thump, thump, chank, chank sound of the pestle
grinding the daily curry paste. Sometimes as early as 5:30am, you would be awakened (or even earlier if there was a full moon and the cook could not sleep!). But you could snuggle down into your blanket and smile to
yourself, wondering what the daily curry was going to be. By the time the sun had started to break, you could smell the bubbling, spicy curry, as it boiled to perfection with the freshest picked herbs and vegetables from
right around the house and whatever meats were on hand (fish or chicken usually).
But today, even in Thailand, young and middle-aged people are in a rush. Only the older ones and the traditionalists still continue to cook in the old ways. Now curry paste is usually picked up ready-made in
the marketplace for just a few cents. The home cook simply adds it to the coconut milk to make curry or fries it with pork or chicken to make Pad Phed. This paste is still fresher than what one can
buy in a can or jar in the U.S. but it is prepared with a large electric blender of course. Therefore taste is sacrificed for convenience.
If you are pressed for time, use canned coconut milk and prepared curry pastes and other time-savers, but if you can allow 30 minutes to use the mortar and
pestle (or have a friend help) the cooking will be enjoyable and the final dish even more delicious. The mortar and pestle is enjoying a resurgence of interest in America, as more and more people try to
slow down their lives (which makes it a great gift for the cook).