The mortar and pestle has a permanent place in local kitchens because it is required to combine the aromatic spices used widely in Singapore’s cuisines.
Sambal, a chilli sauce integral to Malay and Peranakan cuisines, is created in a mortar, usually made of granite. After its ingredients like chillies, garlic and shallots are pounded into one, sambal is either served as a condiment or stir-fried with meats, seafood or vegetables to make a sambal goreng dish. Another common item created with the mortar and pestle is rempah, a spice paste of varying ingredients like candlenuts and galangal that forms the aromatic base for braised meats (e.g. babi pongteh) and grilled fish (e.g. otak otak). So common were these preparation methods that families in the past also kept a batu giling, a large granite slab and roller, to grind more spices for bigger spreads (Sass).
Local Indians also hunch over the mortar and pestle to grind their own masala. Like rempah, its combination of dry spices and wet seasonings varies according to the main ingredient. For example, cardamom and cloves for mutton, but fenugreek goes with fish curries (Hutton 36). In the past, Indian cooks pounded the spices only when they needed it, because the aroma became weaker the longer they were kept. Grounded spices also didn’t keep well in the tropical weather without a refrigerator, which only became a common household item in the 1970s (Gadgets that take the drudgery 26).
The granite mortar and pestle – a fat and squat bowl with a round-end stone – look primitive because their basic form and function were set some 20,000 years ago. Grinding stones were used by early populations to remove husks or shells from wild cereals to make them digestible. They were also used to reduce nuts and grains into flour. The tools became common thousands of years later when cereals became domesticated. Mortars and pestles of all sorts have been found in the kitchens of Pompeians, Egyptians and Moors. Transcending histories and cultures, they are arguably the most widely used kitchen tools in the world (Wilson 151-153).
The granite mortar has a rough inner surface that makes grinding or pounding spherical nuts and seeds easier. However, mortars and pestles that come in other materials have their own merits too. Besides crushing spices effectively, the heavy marble mortar and pestle also has a smooth surface that is easy to clean. A wooden version works best with dry spices, and although wet seasonings like garlic tend to leave a flavour in the bowl, that is fine too if it is only used for one purpose (Horton).
There are a few things to take note when using a mortar and pestle of any material. The bowl should be filled no more than half way or the ingredients will scatter as the pestle hits. Mortars with a heavy base stay in place during use, although placing a folded towel underneath helps too. The towel also protects the floor tiles from the blows and helps maintain good relations with one’s neighbours downstairs. An old Malayan superstition has it that it’s bad luck to kick a mortar and pestle, but it can be remedied by bowing low and placing one’s head upon the offended stone (Groom).
In the 1970s, women were joining the workforce by the thousands as part of Singapore’s industrialisation drive. They were concerned about juggling dual roles as breadwinners and homemakers, and one solution was to modernise their kitchens with electrical appliances. This became a necessity, not just among the wealthy but also the growing middle class living in public housing (Labour Saving Appliances 30). The blender was one of the popular gadgets brought home to automate cooking processes and to “take the drudgery out of kitchen chores” (Gadgets that take the drudgery 26).
The mortar and pestle was quickly replaced by the blender. At first, only western recipes in the English newspapers called for the appliance. By 1979, it was frequently highlighted as an alternative to a mortar and pestle even for local dishes like the Chinese sweet sticky rice cake and the Malay botok kangkong (Chan 13, Alkaff 19). Prominent cookbook writers in the 1970s also switched their mortars and pestles for a blender. One of them was Mrs Lee Chin Koon, who published the first local Peranakan cookbook in 1974. She told The Straits Times: “The modern housewife is often also working and she does not have as much household help as we had in the old days. So I have kept that in mind and if you follow my recipes you’ll find that you’ll spend very little time cooking.” (Oon 10)
Despite the laborious work involved, many still swear by the mortar and pestle today. Ancient they may be, these tools crush and rupture food cells, releasing fragrant oil and aromatic compounds that can hardly be emulated by the cuts of a blade (Lopez-Alt). A primitive-looking mortar and pestle in a modern kitchen doesn’t clash, but is actually a sign of a discerning and dedicated cook.
Sass, Lorna J. “Nonya Cooking: Revealing he Mysteries of Singapore.” The Washington Post, 6 Feb 1983, www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/food/1983/02/06/nonya-cooking-revealing-the-mysteries-of-singapore/11ebc52f-dfc8-4864-bfc5-5003fec897aa/?utm_term=.6319e69eef65. Accessed 12 Feb 2018.
Hutton, Wendy. Singapore Food. Times Books International, 1989.
“Gadgets that Take the Drudgery Out of the Kitchen Chores.” The Straits Times, 21 Mar 1974, p.26.
Wilson, Bee. Consider the Fork. Basic Books, 2012.
Horton, Emily. “Mortar and Pestles for Different Jobs.” The Washington Post, 13 Mar 2012, www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/mortar-and-pestles-for-different-jobs/2012/03/08/gIQAgisY9R_story.html?utm_term=.4422d2b0bbfa. Accessed 12 Feb 2018.
Groom, Pelham. “Antidote for a Hantu.” The Straits Times, 30 Mar 1957, p.3.
“Labour Saving Appliances Make Life Simple for the Career Woman.” The Straits Times, 4 Mar 1979, p.30.
Chan, Margaret. “Good Luck Food.” New Nation, 25 Jan 1979, p.13.
Alkaff, Aloyah. “Special and Spicy and Just Like Otak Otak.” New Nation, 25 Nov 1979, p.19.
Oon, Violet. “Soon, A Book on How to Cook Nyonya Style.” New Nation, 16 Nov 1974, p.10.
Lopez-Alt, J. Kenji. “Mortar and Pestles + Food Processor = Great Curry Paste, Fast.” Serious Eats, www.seriouseats.com/2016/07/quick-tip-faster-curry-paste-mortar-pestle-food-processor-test-best-flavor.html. Accessed 12 Feb 2018.