In this day and age, there's a gadget for everything. Want to make a smoothie? There's a blender. Need to cook perfectly fluffy white rice? There’s a machine for that, too. However, even in this world of high-tech gizmos and gadgets made to fulfill all of your kitchen fantasies and desires, sometimes the best tools in the kitchen are the most simple ones. Let us introduce you to one of the oldest yet still widely used kitchen tools - the mortar and pestle.
What Do a Mortar and Pestle Do?
The mortar and pestle is one of the oldest known kitchen tools known to man, having been found as early as 1550 BC in Egypt where it was recorded to have been used for medical purposes. In Japan’s case, the mortar and pestle was first said to have come to Japan during the 6th century from China.
The purpose of the mortar and pestle is simple: to crush things. Seeds, grains, and nuts can be ground down to make a paste or a powder. One of its key uses in traditional Japanese cooking is in grinding up the ingredients to make miso paste, a staple ingredient in Japanese cuisine.
Of course, today there is little to no reason to make miso by hand as machines take most of the grunt work out of the process and the finished product is much smoother. However, it doesn’t mean that the mortar and pestle is obsolete in the slightest.
Why the Mortar and Pestle Reigns Supreme
While you can turn basil, garlic, and pine nuts into pesto with a food processor, most of them only have two settings, on and off. Leave your ingredients in the food processor for too long and you end up with a homogenous smoothie. Process your ingredients too little and you end up with essentially a salad.
With a mortar and pestle, you have absolute control of the texture and consistency of your concoction. And since an extra mash or two won't affect either aspect of the final product, you can freely tweak the flavor to fit your tastes. Not enough salt? Add some. Too much basil? Balance it with oil. Then a quick mash and you can taste test.
Another advantage that the mortar and pestle has over a standard kitchen appliance is that it brings out the flavor in your ingredients far more than a food processor ever could.
A regular household food processor simply just cuts ingredients into smaller pieces of food using a rotating blade. Using a mortar and pestle, on the other hand, grinds and crushes the ingredients, coaxing out all of the trapped oils and flavors from within their cell walls. This brings a new layer of depth to the flavor and aroma of your cooking.
Buy It For Life
Like all machines, a food processor will only last maybe a couple of years before the blades go dull, the motor starts to stall, and soon you’ll find yourself with another piece of junk that needs to be replaced again and again.
With the proper cleaning and care, the mortar and pestle can be a lifelong kitchen ally as the ingenuity is within its simplicity. No blades to clean, no parts to assemble. Just good, simple, reliable culinary tools that have transcended the centuries.
Food processors are tricky to clean. You have to disassemble them with each use, and it is extremely easy to nick your fingers on one of the rotating blades. Some parts are also impossible to clean, so over time, food processors can start to smell and get pretty gross.
The mortar and pestle doesn't have such issues. It is easy to clean as there are no hidden nooks and crannies, nor are there any sharp ridges or blades. It is a workhorse that can be easily passed on through the generations.
What Can a Mortar and Pestle Make?
As aforementioned, one of the most important uses for the mortar and pestle in Japanese cooking traditionally was for pounding beans and grains into miso paste. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
If you visit a traditional or upscale tonkatsu restaurant in Japan, you will often get a small mortar filled with toasted sesame seeds and a pestle. It is then up to the customer to use the pestle to grind the sesame seeds into a fine powder before adding in their desired amount of tonkatsu sauce to dip the crispy breaded cutlet.
The mortar and pestle isn't just limited to seeds, grains, and nuts. Meat and seafood can be mashed up in a mortar and pestle to create a paste. Tsukune is a type of Japanese chicken meatball grilled on a skewer. The traditional way to make it is by mashing up chicken breast, salt, egg, grated onion, ginger, soy sauce, panko, and a little bit of mirin with a mortar and pestle until you get a consistent paste that can then be shaped into a meatball.
The versatility of the mortar and pestle goes far beyond Japanese cooking. As mentioned before, pesto can be made to perfection if Italian cooking is more up your alley. If you’re thinking about Mexican, why not use the mortar and pestle to make some guacamole? And if you’re in the mood for something hot and spicy, a mortar and pestle can be used to achieve just the perfect texture for your Thai red curry.
Brand Spotlight: 2016/ STEFAN DIEZ
So, now that you understand just what the mortar and pestle bring to the culinary scene, where do you start and what should you look for in a quality product? Our recommendation is that you look no farther than the works of Stefan Diaz, a German designer whose works explore the marriage of Western and Eastern design.
2016/ STEFAN DIEZ IMARI-ARITA MORTAR PESTLE SET (WHITE)
His white mortar and pestle set beautifully conveys the balance between Asian and Western approaches towards food by splashing some minimalist modernity over the conventional mortar and pestle.
The specific style of pottery that Diaz chose for this piece is that of the town Arita located in the southern Japanese prefecture of Saga. Often called Imari-Arita ware after the town, this style of ceramics is known for being light yet durable.
One of the advantages to having a ceramic mortar instead of the stone variety is that it is much lighter in weight, yet equally durable and built to last. This makes this particular mortar and pestle set a joy to use, as well as easy to clean and store away.
Get on that Grind
So, is throwing all of your ingredients into a food processor or blender, pressing a button, and then blitzing everything into oblivion the easier option? Yes. But with a mortar and pestle, not only are you getting a more precise, more refined meal, but you are putting your very heart and soul into your dish, which will make it all the more special. For the chef that truly wants to put a little part of themselves into every dish that they make, there is no kitchen commodity more essential than the good old-fashioned mortar and pestle.