If you’re serious about ethnic cooking, there comes a point where a mortar & pestle will become a critical part of your kitchen arsenal. The more you cook certain styles of food (Thai, Peranakan/Nyonya, Mexican, etc.), the more you will find that modern shortcuts – coffee grinders for spices, food processors for grinding pastes – remove a level of control in working ingredients and can actually negatively impact flavor.
Tossing spices and liquids into the Cuisinart is an afterthought. Pounding a rempah to be used in a curry is a deliberate act. You have to take the time to think about each ingredient as you add it to the mortar – you watch the texture change and smell the aroma develop as oils are released. With practice you learn how subtle changes in the way you pound and grind affect the final product.
I’ve been working without a decent mortar for a while now (my old one is garbage) and my frustration got the better of me. I finally found a granite mortar & pestle that I liked (not too deep and wide enough to be able to work with a decent amount of ingredients). I’ll go into more details about working with it in future posts – this post is about seasoning a new mortar.
Think of a granite mortar like a cast iron pan – you have to season it before you can use it. It’s not difficult but it does take a little bit of time. The upside is that you get to spend a little time familiarizing yourself with the tool in the process.
The first step is obvious – wash it out with plenty of water (like cast iron – NEVER use soap).
Throw in a few cloves of garlic (peeled) and pound them into a paste. This is a good time to get a feel for how you are supposed to work with a mortar. Don’t start pounding the crap out of everything – you’ll have garlic everywhere – your hair, on your cabinets, floor, ceiling. Everywhere. Start off gentle. Hold the pestle at an angle and work your way around the bottom. Pay attention to the ingredient – it will tell you when to pound harder or more gently.
You are working toward a fine paste – get it up onto the sides of the mortar. You want to cover the entire inner surface. Once you have the whole surface covered – leave it. This sounds weird, but just let it sit on the counter (12-24 hours). You can cover it with plastic wrap to keep things out of it (and the aroma down), but leave it be.
After the garlic as set for a while, wash the mortar and pestle again. Remember – water only. The garlic in mine had taken on a greenish hue. Don’t worry about it – just rinse it out really well. Now it’s time for rice. Take a little wet rice (uncooked) and add it to the mortar. Remember that part in step 2 where I said to be gentle? Now is where we see if you were paying attention. Gently begin to pound and grind the rice. If you’re careful you’ll only lose a few grains of rice. More likely you’ll lose quite a bit.
The idea is to work the wet rice into a fine paste, again coating the entire interior surface.
Take your time. Uncooked rice is hard, so it’s going to take a while to get it broken down. Don’t worry if you don’t feel like you’re doing it right. You get to do this again (and maybe again). Your first batch of rice will turn grey. What you’re doing here is grinding loose grit out of the mortar and the rice paste is picking it up.
Wash the mortar again (water only) and do another batch of rice. Repeat this process until the rice paste stays white. Remember this step, as this is how you will clean the mortar if you get food sticking to it or if you use a strong or heavily colored ingredient (like achiote).
Getting closer. Rinse and dry the mortar, then add some coarse salt. I used sal grosso.
In this step you’re grinding – you want to work the salt around the mortar, grinding it as fine as possible.
Rinse and dry the mortar again. Your mortar is now ready to use. You can grind a few other spices in at this point, but in my mind they don’t really stick around as “seasoning”.
These are white and black peppercorns. Remember that part about gentle? This is good practice for that. You need to coax the peppercorns to crack before you can really start working with them.