Types of Mortar & Pestle
Thai Green Granite Mortar
Back before the Wall Street Journal was bought by Murdock and turned into a propaganda rag for the 1%, it had articles relevant to real people. They even occasionally had comparative reviews of kitchen equipment. The reviewers, however, were a bit weak in the wrists, to the extent they marked down the wonderful Oxo salad spinner for not being motorized.
So then, why in the world did these wimpy reviewers select as "Number 1" this 11 pound green granite Thai monster mortar with its massive 3 pound pestle? Could it be just because it was the only one in their test suite that worked? Others were found much less effective, but "innovative" and "gourmet" models performed particularly poorly.
Fortunately, I already had a Thai mortar, having come to the same conclusion years ahead of them. The bowl is 5-1/2 inches inside and 4 inches deep, holding 6 cups (1-1/2 quarts).
One Thai chef reports having flown to America with his granite mortar
on his lap the whole way to make sure it didn't get lost. A teacher of
Thai cooking reports her students rush out after their first class to buy
their own. But it's not just for Thai cuisine, it works just as well
for just about every other cuisine in the world.
Marble Mortar & Pestle
This is the minimum mortar that's really useful. It weighs a mere 5 pounds 5 ounces with a bowl 3-3/4 inches wide and 2-3/4 inches deep holding 2 cups. Trouble is, the pestle that comes with many of these is laughably inadequate and no amount of blue pills will help. I had a sufficient stoneware pestle made by a local ceramicist.
A mortar in this class is a kitchen essential for any cuisine. Mine sits
on the window sill over my kitchen counter, ready for instant use for minor
grinding and smashing tasks not sufficiently demanding to require the Thai
Kruk - [Kruk, Kluek (Thai); Cloke & Sok (Laos)]
This fired clay mortar with it's wooden pestle is used in Issan (northeastern Thailand) and Laos to make the famous Green Papaya Salad and similar preparations. It is used very differently from the Thai granite mortar. Strips of green papaya, long beans and other vegetables are lightly bruised so they absorb dressing but are still fairly crisp and intact. A special technique is used. The pestle strikes at an angle near the top of the contents so the bruising can be precisely controled. A spoon is used to continuously bring ingredients up from the bottom to where the pestle strikes.
These are inexpensive in Asian markets here in Los Angeles. The photo
specimen, 6-3/4 inches across the opening and 7 inches deep, cost 2016
US $12, including the pestle, traditionally made of palm wood. It is a
little large for a modest size salad, so I also have one about 6-1/4
inches across the opening and 6 inches deep, which cost $11.
Molcajete & Tejolote
Made from gray volcanic stone, this Mexican mortar and pestle is often used
to make salsas, for which its coarse texture is a great advantage. It's
probably a little too coarse for most mortar and pestle tasks in other
Photo © i0023.
I recently read advice in a food article saying, "don't pound with the pestle, use a circular motion". Yeah, right. If you're doing much more than grinding a few peppercorns that's going to make a wreck of your wrist in short order.
Pounding in a mortar is so important in some cultures that a young woman's readiness for marriage is judged by the pace and rhythm of her pounding.
For stones used to sharpen knives and other tools, see Sharpening Stones.
Metate y Mano - [Licuadora Azteca (Aztec Blender)]
Unlike the Mortar & Pestle, the Metate y Mano can be used to grind
relatively large amounts of seeds into flour. This device has been used in
various forms worldwide since the far depths of prehistory. In Mexico it's
still used in the villages to grind corn into flour, as well as grinding
chilis, cacao and other ingredients for mole (sauces). It is not generally
needed in our kitchens because flour can be purchased ready ground and most
other sauce ingredients can be ground in a food processor and/or spice
grinder. A very similar device, the Sil and Batta, is used in India for
similar purposes, but the "mano" is flat and triangular in shape.
Photo by Jim Conrad contributed to the public domain.
Millstones were introduced to China through trade with the Roman Empire,
raising the status of wheat from despised grain to a favorite of the
Imperial Court. Small hand mills are still made in China, used mostly for
grinding grains, seeds and beans for dessert pastes. The mill in the photo
is occasionally available from The Wok
Shop in San Francisco. Very similar but larger mills called
Chakki are used in India by women who go from door to door
grinding a week's spices for households.