The Things We Treasure

The Rustic Kitchen Tool That Connects Me to My Mother's Cooking

For decades, I savored Aai's best dishes. Now I look to my own kitchen, and mortar and pestle, to shape mine.

May  7, 2020
Photo by Maggie Slover

An object is often worth more than its material form. It can bring with it cultural echoes, family history, and personal memory. In The Things We Treasure, writers tell us about their most priceless possessions—and the irreplaceable stories behind them.


My mother’s mortar and pestle is a black granite beauty, its nooks and crannies smoothed out from years of service. She bought it 53 years ago, as a newlywed setting up her first kitchen in Mumbai, and has used it every day since—sometimes, twice a day. I tease her, saying she is one in a country of a billion who has stayed faithful to it; everyone else we know uses a three-jar Vitamix-esque grinder to churn out the pulps, pastes, and powders so central to Indian cooking.

My mother is an excellent cook, but nowhere is her “hand”—a word used in India to describe that personal stamp of flavor that every cook imparts to their food—more evident than in her searingly hot, spicy-sour, and creamy chutneys. Tomatoes, opo squash, mint, green chile peppers, fresh or dry coconut, the five-point star fruit, green tamarind—she’ll turn anything into a chutney. Her mortar and pestle is her loyal aide in this endeavor, reinforced by her tireless hands and unflinching belief that a modern blender will never come close.

That sentiment is not without merit. You may have read that a mortar and pestle is generally considered superior for making pesto or aioli—and the same is true when it comes to chutney. An electric blender or food processor works, but isn't ideal: it shreds the ingredients into super-fine pieces, chopping but not necessarily blending. In contrast, a pestle pulverizes, forcing the ingredients to release oils and marry flavors, without so much as a drop of water needed.

My mother is an excellent cook, but nowhere is her "hand"—a word used in India to describe that personal stamp of flavor that every cook imparts to their food—more evident than in her searingly hot, spicy-sour, and creamy chutneys.

Nothing exemplifies this better than my mother’s tomato and green chile chutney. She first sautés the tomatoes and peppers in a tiny bit of oil till the tomatoes break down and lose moisture, and the peppers soften. Once this mixture cools down, she pours it into the mortar with salt, cumin seeds, and some roasted peanut powder. Now she pounds as well as churns: tomatoes get crushed, peppers loosen from their skin and dislodge their explosively hot bits. A chunky paste emerges. The trick, she always says, is in choosing the ingredients to go after and how much to pound, in order to retain the grainy texture. This level of selective precision is impossible in a blender.


The four-inch granite mortar and pestle in my kitchen in Virginia is about half the size of my mother’s. Just like her, I use it to grind freshly toasted spices or tiny portions of garlic, ginger and peppers that just don’t reach the economies of scale justified by a blender (or the cleaning after). I also have a stainless steel version that my mother bought for me and lugged all the way from India several years ago, wrapped up in her many saris. As we uncovered it from meters of cloth, we poked fun at her, but had no qualms about polishing off the carrot halwa she made us after, flavored with the cardamom and nutmeg powder she ground in it. I now reserve that one solely for special occasions.

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Top Comment:
“Lovely article :) someday I'll have my mother's mortar and pestle- she's Lao, and that's such a big part of their cooking there's a saying about how a mother in law will visit a possible future wife for her son, and judge the rhythm of the noises the daughter makes. Steady and even is good; slow or uneven implies she's flighty and distracted!”
— Claudia T.
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It’s not unusual for Indian kitchens to have more than one mortar and pestle, and in multiple materials—stone, steel, brass, wood—each reserved for a specific use. The granite one, the kind my mother has, is called “khalbatta” in Marathi. Another type of stone M&P is “silbatta,” a set of flat stone and a cylindrical grinding stone for roller-grinding wet masalas and chutneys. And then there are the 3-foot-tall wooden behemoths, often seen in our ancestral homes, and set aside for mass-pounding dry masalas and red chile powders.

My mother's time-worn khalbatta. Photo by Annada Rathi

I’ve been trying to replicate my mother’s recipe for thecha for a while now, a firecracker of a chutney whose star ingredient is green chile pepper. Essentially farmer food, thecha, topped with a swirl of oil, is paired with a rustic sorghum bread. To validate my mother’s instruction, I’ve attempted it in both my blender and my granite mortar. I hand-ground my thecha first—the pestle releasing a tongue-searing punch of flavor with a texture not pasty yet not grainy either. The thecha from the blender on the other hand, even with a few drops of water, was full of seeds and paled in comparison, both in texture and flavor.

My mother’s hand had spoken.

It was only recently that she told me that the well-shaped hollow of the mortar I see in her kitchen today, has actually deepened by more than two inches with decades of repetitive pounding. Now, she says, the pestle has more depth to pound, like a cast iron pan that seasons with age and function, or a person who’s wisdom is burnished with the passage of time. Some day, I tell myself, my kitchen, my cooking style, every dish I churn out will reflect my indelible stamp—my own hand. Until then, there’s my mortar and pestle that mirrors hers.

What is your treasured kitchen tool? Tell us in the comments below.

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To some people's frustration, I like to talk about food before cooking, while cooking, while eating and of course after eating.

13 Comments

Jo May 20, 2020
What a beautiful ode to your mother. Your story brought back memories of my mother’s techniques and her spirit of joy when she spent time in her kitchen. Annada, your recipes and stories are food for the mind, body and spirit.
 
Author Comment
Annada R. May 20, 2020
Oh Jo! What a lovely thing to say. My heart is touched. Thank you reading and commenting.
 
Rebecca May 13, 2020
My treasured kitchen tool is my rolling pin that belonged to my paternal grandfather, who taught me many of my baking skills, including making a perfect pie crust. My maternal grandmother rescued it from the garage sale pile when my paternal grandmother was moving out of her house to a retirement community, 7 years after my grandfather passed away. I love that rolling pin and all the memories it brings back whenever I use it.
 
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Annada R. May 13, 2020
Thank you Rebecca! Thank you for sharing the story of your treasured rolling pin! The feelings, memories these treasures evoke are priceless!
 
Kanchan S. May 10, 2020
Very nicely written article. Brought back memories of my mom’s cooking with the mortar and pestle and her purchase of it to give to me. Thank you!
 
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Annada R. May 13, 2020
Thank you Kanchan! i'm glad this article brought back memories of your mom's cooking for you.
 
Claudia T. May 8, 2020
Lovely article :) someday I'll have my mother's mortar and pestle- she's Lao, and that's such a big part of their cooking there's a saying about how a mother in law will visit a possible future wife for her son, and judge the rhythm of the noises the daughter makes. Steady and even is good; slow or uneven implies she's flighty and distracted!
 
Author Comment
Annada R. May 9, 2020
Wow, Claudia! That is such an interesting saying, thank you for making me familiar with it. I had the opportunity to have the green papaya salad in a Lao home and absolutely loved it. Thank you for your kind words.
 
Panfusine May 7, 2020
Still have and love using my marble khalbatta - incidentally, it was my dad who bought it - Mom cooked as a routine, Dad , because he just loved cooking.
LOVE your thecha recipe, spread it on Sourdough Avocado toast, and it was mind blowing delicious!
 
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Annada R. May 7, 2020
Thank you Panfusine! The creaminess of avocado, the tang of sourdough and the tongue-scorching heat of thecha is a made-in-heaven combo.
 
gandalf May 7, 2020
This is a wonderful article; thank you for sharing!
 
Arati M. May 7, 2020
I agree! Isn't it amazing how our mothers' ways shape us—consciously and intuitively—and how we interact with our own homes and kitchens?
 
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Annada R. May 7, 2020
Thank you Gandalf! Appreciate the kind words!