The kitchen tool that unlocks childhood memories of food and my grandmother is the stone mortar and pestle—or rubbu rōlu as it is called in Telugu, my mother tongue. My earliest memory of this tool is from when I was five or six years old. I remember sitting next to my grandmother, or Ammama, as I called her, on her kitchen floor as she rhythmically crushed freshly plucked mehendi leaves with a horizontal pestle on a rectangular stone slab. As the leaves transformed into a bright green gooey paste, my little heart filled with happiness in anticipation of the sun and moon patterns Ammama would make with the mehendi paste on my hand.
When I recall the homes of aunts, cousins, and friends, one permanent fixture that stands out across all their kitchens is the mortar and pestle. There is the massive, hourglass-shaped stone mortar with a long wooden pestle in my paternal grandparents’ home; the granite mortar that is firmly fixed into the kitchen counter at my parents’ home; the tiny brass mortar and pestle my aunt uses only to crush cardamom; the handy, nonporous marble version in my own kitchen. Ammama’s kitchen boasted almost all the shapes and sizes of this indispensible tool.
I learned from Ammama how to season a brand-new stone mortar by first pounding raw rice grains in it, which removes any stone particles or dirt. Pounding rice grains in between uses also helps take away lingering aromas or leftover masala bits. My grandmother was always pounding together coriander seeds and desiccated coconut, crushing ginger and garlic to a paste, bruising fresh spices to release their fragrant oils, and experimenting with myriad spice combinations in her mortar and pestle.
Whether it was for everyday masalas or preparing larger feasts on special occasions, Ammama insisted that hand-pounding was the key to drawing out the rich aroma and depth of flavor in food. Although slower and physically harder than using a spice grinder or food processor, she would always remind me that devoting muscle and time to the process of cooking would help us form a bond with the food being made. The significance of that statement may have escaped my childhood self, but it is something I hold onto steadfastly now.
We use the mortar and pestle in our home kitchen to make fresh relishes with vegetables, lentils, seeds, or nuts; flavorful spice powders, aromatic masala pastes and marinades; and damp rice flour for varied sweet preparations. It breathes life into our everyday meals.
And those meals are incomplete without a choice of chutneys, pickles, and poḍis (spice powders). No matter how busy or tired Ammama was, she would always hand-pound chutneys or fresh relishes so as to retain the essence of the ingredients, preventing them from being pulverized to textureless pastes and not draining the greens and vegetables of their natural juices. In what is our family’s favorite sweet and spicy tamarind sauce, chilies are first roasted directly over a flame. The just-charred chilies are pounded in a mortar and pestle and mixed with jaggery-infused tamarind water along with coarsely pounded garlic and onion chunks to make a quick and versatile sauce.
Two other dishes I can never bring myself to use the food processor for are incidentally two of my grandmother’s signature dishes: For eṇḍu māmsam, naturally preserved, sun-dried meat pieces are pounded in a large, deep mortar, fried in a blend of whole spices, then served alongside lightly sautéed onions and crisped potato pieces. Perugu gārelu, another of Ammama's signatures, are made from soaked black gram (black lentils) ground in a continuous circular motion in a mortar with an occasional splash of water till the batter turns frothy and soft. The lentil batter is then shaped into donuts, deep-fried, and soaked in a ginger-spiced yoghurt sauce.
In the nine years since Ammama passed on, despite making innumerable visits to my grandparents’ home, and intending every single time to bring her stone mortar and pestle back with me, I never managed to. It almost feels like the mortar had willed itself not to leave her kitchen.
Serendipitously, her mortar and pestle made its journey to my kitchen the same week I completed work on Five Morsels of Love. Perhaps I am ready now to accept the inheritance.
- 25 grams (about 1 lime-sized ball) tamarind, soaked in 60ml / 1/4 cup of hot water for 15 mins
- 3 tablespoons powdered jaggery (raw sugar or brown sugar work if you cannot find jaggery)
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 6 to 7 dried red chiles
- 1 onion, peeled and halved
- 8 to 10 garlic cloves
Archana Pidathala is the author of Five Morsels of Love, a contemporary South Indian cookbook. You can order her book here.
What are the tools you feel powerfully attached to—or the ones that have changed the way you cook? Tell us in the comments!