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Going back to the grind

A mortar and pestle arms home cooks with the ability to smash together their own delicious curry pastes

If you want to fix a Thai meal in a hurry, buy some ready-made curry or seasoning paste. You will be able to whip something up in no time. But if you want the food to really be delicious, you will have to pound the paste yourself. It takes more time, but it is time well spent.

crushing: Pounding your own curry paste isn't hard, and you can start doing it now. Photos: Suthon Sukphisit

Before setting out to do the pounding, however, it is a good idea to consider the mortar and pestle that are at the heart of this culinary art, paying special attention to the stone ones that are now considered to be standard equipment for the kitchen. They are easy to find, inexpensive and available in a wide range of shapes and sizes.

Seventy or so years ago, however, they were considered valuable and sold for a high price. Every housewife dreamed of owning one. Stone mortars came from a single source, a village in Ang Sila village in Chon Buri. It used to be the site of a small mountain set at the edge of the sea, one that contained an outcropping of yellow-white granite that extended over the whole mountain and into the sea.

The Chinese artisans who originally chiselled the granite into mortars established themselves in the tambon, which is why the mortars show a Chinese influence. In the past, any visitor to Ang Sila would hear the sound of stone being carved into mortars, creating a din that was heard throughout the village.

Transporting the mortars to Bangkok for sale was difficult then, as the trip took two days on old Sukhumvit Road, which was small and narrow. When it reached the Bang Kapong River, which had no bridge in those times, the crossing could only be made by raft. When the mortars did reach Bangkok, they were displayed for sale only in the Woeng Nakhon Kasem area off New Road, Bangkok's first commercial district. Anyone who wanted to get a stone mortar from Ang Sila had to save for a long time before they could buy one to pound their curry paste.

The stone mortars and pestles in those days were all hand-carved, with the result being that the inside, where the pounding was done, was not smooth. When the paste was being pounded, chips would break off from the rough surface and make the paste gritty. This tendency continued for a very long time until the inside of the mortar became smooth from use.

Since a stone mortar from Ang Sila was considered a household treasure, it could be taken to pawn if the family was having money problems. By the same token, anyone who was looking for an inexpensive stone mortar could seek out a used one at a pawnshop.

Cooks who wanted to prepare dishes that called for a pounded seasoning mixture or curry paste to eat at home would always prepare it personally. But those who made food for sale needed several different kinds of seasoning and curry paste. Pounding all of them at home took much too much time. As a result, shops appeared in fresh markets that offered ready-pounded pastes for their convenience.

The merchants who made these pastes for sale had to be good cooks in their own right, knowledgeable about the different types. They used electrical equipment to do the mixing.

They would ask customers what kind of curry they would be making and in what quantity, then prepare the appropriate paste. For example, if a customer said that she was going to make kaeng khio waan nuea (a spicy beef curry made with coconut cream), the vendor would take some khrueang kaeng phrik chee faa (a seasoning paste made from a type of hot chilli) and add some cumin and powdered coriander seed. If it was a catfish version of the same curry, she would add some chopped krachaai (an aromatic rhizome related to ginger). If the intended dish were a phanaeng nuea (a rich, mild, coconut-cream based beef curry), some pounded peanuts would be put in. Other spicy dishes like kaeng som, kaeng phet-type recipes or phat phet stir-fries could also be made with pastes sold in the fresh market. If a vendor did well and attracted many customers, she could establish a factory to make the pastes on an industrial scale. Many famous brands sold in supermarkets today had their beginnings at fresh market stalls.

Home-pounded curry pastes made using a household mortar are certainly better than the factory-made, store-bought kind because they are of higher quality. All the needed herbal ingredients are included, with no omissions, and they are fresher. When a curry paste recipe calls for dried chillies, a cook pounding it at home can choose the chillies on the basis of where they came from and decide how much or little to use. She can also be selective in choosing ingredients like lemongrass, onions, garlic, makrood lime zest and kapi.

In some cases the cook may like the scent of makrood lime and add a bit more so that when the chilli paste is fried, it will be especially fragrant. Powdered cumin and coriander seed are also much more aromatic when freshly pounded than when bought ready-ground in the market.

When pounding the seasoning paste for kaeng lieng (a kind of vegetable soup), which is made from pepper, shallots and kapi, the home cook can decided whether to give prominence to the heat of the peppercorns or the fragrance of the shallots. Once the paste has been pounded, the kaeng can be made right away.

Some people might object that home-pounded pastes lack a smooth consistency. This is just an excuse because many dishes benefit from a coarser texture. A kaeng som with small bits of dried chilli skin floating in it loses none of its appeal. The same is true of thawt man plaa kraai or thawt man hua plee (deep-fried patties made with either fish or banana flowers). If the curry paste used to make them includes some bits of dried chilli skin, it makes them look all the more appetising because foods of this kind need varied texture.

Think also of the popular chilli dip called namphrik kapi. Its ingredients include fiery phrik khee nuu, garlic, kapi, palm sugar, lime juice and makhuea phuang (small, pea-like eggplants that grow in clusters) or ma-uek (a fuzzy yellow eggplant relative). The way to pound it to ensure that the smell of the kapi does not become too dominant is to pound the garlic and kapi together vigorously until they have a fine consistency, then pound in the chillies and sugar, squeeze in some lime and finally put in the eggplant. The cook will know how hard to pound these last three ingredients so that they burst enough to release their flavour without being smashed.

Taking the time to pound your own curry and seasoning pastes brings many advantages. The dishes that use them taste fresher and better. Doing it yourself is economical, too, the only real investment necessary being some work by your arms and wrists. Finally, it will give you an opportunity to pass on to family members the proper proportions of ingredients to make the paste for some favourite curries.

So get the old stone mortar out of the cabinet and put it to work. The sound of curry paste or nam phrik being pounded is music to the ears of any serious Thai food lover.

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