Whether it's made from clay, marble, or volcanic rock, each of these ancient tools has its own superpower in the kitchen. 

By Andrea Slonecker
April 30, 2020
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Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Margaret Dickey / Prop Styling by Heather Chadduck Hillegas

In an era of convenience cookware, I enjoy pushing back against the pressures of modernization by reaching for the most ancient of tools: a mortar and pestle. I have a collection of 20 from all over the world, and they are my most prized—and most frequently used—kitchen possessions.

I take pleasure in pounding, grinding, smashing, swirling, and bruising ingredients in a mortar; but it’s not just the act that I enjoy, it’s also the outcome. The friction between mortar and pestle releases the ingredients’ essential oils, exposing more nuanced flavors than the cutting action of a blender, food processor, or knife blade ever could. The mortar and pestle produces more delicious foods by liberating their flavors. Spices, herbs, and other aromatic ingredients like ginger, garlic, and chiles are brought to life. (Here are tips for how to use a mortar and pestle in your own kitchen.) 

Many of the world’s great culinary cultures devised their versions of the mortar and pestle using available raw materials to process native ingredients efficiently. Along the Mediterranean coastline where Italy and France meet, cooks use a marble mortar and stone pestle to make pesto; throughout Mexico and other parts of Latin America, rough basalt forms the bowl of molcajetes; and in Southeast Asia, many fundamental dishes begin in a clay mortar known as a kruk. In my own kitchen, I’ve explored these distinct styles of mortars and pestles, taking the timeless tools and using them in new ways. 

Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Margaret Dickey / Prop Styling by Heather Chadduck Hillegas

Thai Kruk

I’ve come to understand the usefulness of a mortar through a series of cooking experiences throughout my life, including testing recipes for my friend chef Andy Ricker’s Thai cookbook, Pok Pok, several years ago. That’s when I first learned that you can (and should) make salad in a mortar. When hardy produce—such as green papaya, green beans, or cabbage—are lightly crushed, they are tenderized just enough to yield a pleasing, soft crunch and simultaneously become a sponge for flavor. The tall clay mortars, called kruks, are used in Southeast Asia for lightly bruising these crisp vegetables and aromatic ingredients for robustly flavored salads, which I like to serve alongside grilled or roasted fish or chicken and steamed jasmine rice.

The technique involves first pounding the flavoring agents in the base of the mortar using a long wooden pestle, forming the foundation for a bold dressing once fish sauce and lime are tossed in. Next the vegetables and herbs are added, and the motion of the pestle changes. Now it’s a gentler crushing motion, while the ingredients are lifted and toppled with a spoon in your other hand. It looks a bit like clothes tossing in a dryer, honestly—but it’s decidedly more delicious.

Since the entire salad is prepared in the mortar, it’s the depth of the Thai clay mortar that is imperative to making this dish. They are relatively inexpensive and easy to come by at Asian markets or online. Before you scoff at the idea of yet another cooking implement to take up space, note that these are not just for shoving in a cabinet. One of the things I like best about collecting mortars is that they're not only useful, but also beautiful. I display them proudly on my kitchen shelves—they make excellent conversation pieces.

Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Margaret Dickey / Prop Styling by Heather Chadduck Hillegas

Italian Mortar and Pestle

Looming above the Ligurian town of Lerici, the Apuan Alps are visible in the distance, home to the famous Carrara marble quarries. The Carrara marble mortar with a wooden pestle is native to this part of Italy and neighboring Provence, where it’s used for smashing Mediterranean herbs and tender vegetables into sauces and spreads. In Liguria, the marble mortar and pestle is most classically used to make a silky pesto, but it’s also incredibly handy for processing one of my favorite spring ingredients: fava beans. 

Each Saturday morning in May when I venture out to the Portland Farmers Market, I gather a big bag of fava beans to bring home, hand-picking the pods that have the plumpest beans hidden inside. Because their season is fleeting, and they take a bit of effort to prepare—pulling the string from the edge of each pod to extract the beans, followed by simmering, blanching, cooling, and peeling—I like to prepare them rather simply and let their  flavor and creamy texture shine. 

My favorite way with fava beans is to smash them in a mortar with mint, pecorino, a splash of fruity Italian olive oil, salt, and pepper into a chunky spread for topping toast. And once the favas are blanched and shelled, the spread comes together in mere minutes. It makes a fine snack to start a party, but I often call it lunch. Either way, it’s postcard-perfect with a glass of Ligurian white wine and a beautiful spring day. Punta Crena is a great producer of Vermentino and Pigato, two varieties that show the salinity and Mediterranean herbaceousness typical of white wines of the Italian Riviera. 

Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Margaret Dickey / Prop Styling by Heather Chadduck Hillegas

Mexican Molcajete

On a recent trip to Oaxaca, I learned about the many uses of the Mexican molcajete while touring the region with Andrea Hagan of Mezcouting, a company that creates personalized experiences to explore the area’s unique gastronomic culture.

During one outing, after visiting a mezcal distillery near Santa Catarina Minas, we stopped for a lunchtime cooking class in the outdoor kitchen of the town’s library. Overlooking the valley, I watched two of the community’s women press dried chiles into a clay comal to toast them over a live fire. Next they soaked the chiles in water to rehydrate before grinding them in a well-used molcajete to a rustic paste. This was the foundation for mole amarillo, one of the seven mole sauces of the region. In a mix of broken Spanish and hand gestures, I inquired about the process and learned that this was the basic foundation for many types of dishes that begin with dried chiles. The rough basalt surface of a pre-Hispanic molcajete is ideal for grinding dried chiles and spices for moles, salsas, marinades, and guacamole.

The following day at Central de Abastos, the largest market in Oaxaca, I was mesmerized by the fruity, smoky pasilla de Oaxaca chiles (or pasilla Oaxaqueña)—so much so that I brought back a bag of the chiles and a basalt molcajete in my suitcase. In the year or so since, I have enjoyed the dried chiles rehydrated and ground with spices to a brick-red paste for salsas and marinades that I mix together off the cuff. A little of this, a little of that, but always with the first step of toasting, soaking, and grinding the chiles in the molcajete. Combining the pasilla de Oaxaca with citrus is particularly good, and the deep flavor this marinade imparts to beef is exceptional. I make enough to save some to serve at the table as a salsa—from the beautiful molcajete, of course.