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Kitchen Histories: The Mortar and Pestle

Mar 6, 2013

by Sarah Lohman

Etsy.com handmade and vintage goods

Sarah Lohman is a historic gastronomist. She recreates historic recipes as a way to make a personal connection with the past, as well as to inspire her contemporary cooking. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Four Pounds Flour. In this series, Lohman will comb Etsy for items that speak to America’s culinary past.

On more than one occasion, I’ve heaved an exasperated sigh and declared, “I wish I had a mortar and pestle!”

Sometimes a mortar and pestle is just the right tool, particularly when grinding spices. Without one, I’ve been endangering myself with makeshift implements of destruction: rolling pin vs. plastic baggy of spices; liquor bottle bottom vs. mixing bowl. None of them worked as well as the real thing. The final straw was when I started investigating making my own curry powders, and grinding the odorous spices by hand seemed like a must. So, to Etsy! — where I paged through mortar and pestles large and small, wood and metal, vintage and new — all to find one that was not just practical, but beautiful, too.

Sarah Lohman

My heart knew it was right when I saw a bright blue glazed mortar made from sturdy ceramic, with a pestle to match. After it arrived, I knew I needed to christen it with not just any curry, but THE curry: the first curry recipe to appear in the English language.

Curry has been prepared in India for thousands of years, but the Western world got a taste of it thanks to England’s merchants and sailors, who established trade routes to India as far back at the 1600s. The seamen had a penchant for the local food, which they generically referred to as “curry” — but could be any of the highly spiced and complex meat or vegetable dishes for which Indian cuisine is known. They brought both their taste for these dishes, and the spices to make them, home to Britain. The first recipe for a curry in the English language appears in The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, a British cookbook by Hannah Glasse, published in 1747.

Glasse’s Indian curry is simply spiced. While contemporary curries can have a dozen or more ingredients, hers uses only three: turmeric, ginger, and black pepper. We could assume her curry is an Anglicized version of the original, dumbed down for English cooks.

Actually, Glasse’s English curries may be one of the most authentic curries on record. Recent scholarship in India has uncovered clay pots, tandoori ovens, and human teeth at ancient archaeological sites in India. Examined on a molecular level, these dirty dishes can reveal tiny traces of what an ancient Indian had for dinner; many of these cook pots contained traces of turmeric and ginger, ingredients in what scientists are now calling a “proto-curry.”

And while a modern curry uses chilies, which are native to the Americas, Glasse uses black pepper, a vine native to India. Glasse’s simple three-spice curry is true to historic Indian curries and was an authentic taste of the exotic for English, and American, cooks.

In recreating Glasse’s curry, I ground ginger with cracked peppercorns in my mortar, and literally beat the turmeric — a rhizome related to the ginger family; it’s one tough cookie when dried. I cracked it repeatedly with blunt force from my pestle before grinding it fine. When I was done, I had never smelled turmeric so pungent and floral. The mortar and pestle had brought the true flavor of the spice alive.

After simmering on the stove, my first bite of chicken and sauce was thrilling: finished with cream, it had a rich mouthfeel, and the fairly modern touch of adding lemon juice brightened the flavor. Its taste, and even its bright color, was the perfect remedy for a gray February day.

Sarah Lohman

Hannah Glasse’s Three-Spice Currey
Adapted from The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, 1747

1 chicken, skinned and broken down to breast, wings, and thighs
3 medium onions
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon each pepper, ginger, and turmeric, ground fine
½ cup heavy whipping cream
2 small lemons

In a large pot, cover chicken with 1 quart of water. Bring to a simmer, and cook for five minutes. Turn off heat.

Melt butter in a large, heavy bottomed skillet over medium heat. Add onions, cook until soft, 3 minutes. Add chicken and cook on each side until brown and seared. Sprinkle with spice mix and cook 30 seconds, then add water. Stew, uncovered, for 30 minutes.

Add cream and lemon juice; stir. Serve hot over rice.

3 Featured Comments

  • ArtyDidact

    Sharon Parker from ArtyDidact said 5 years ago Featured

    Such an interesting article! I love to learn the history behind ordinary things like that. I love my mortar and pestle and mostly use it to break up dried rosemary into smaller bits. This curry recipe looks delicious, and I love the idea of grinding the curry spices all together yourself instead of buying them powdered. I might just have to try it.

  • bedouin

    Nicole from Crackerjackarma said 5 years ago Featured

    Terrific article ~ I use this method for grinding 90% of the time . I didn't grow up with many kitchen conveniences and still can pretty much make do with whats around ~ medicinal herbs and cooking spices taste so much better freshly ground.

  • BlueBrocade

    BlueBrocade from BlueBrocade said 5 years ago Featured

    Years ago I was first introduced to the many uses of mortars and pestles and I have never looked back. The circular rhythm, the satisfaction in the effort of turning hard spices into soft powder, and I adore their timeless appeal on my kitchen counter. I have a large one and small both in stone, side by side, they remind me of the richness that comes from taking the time to cook and make by hand.

53 comments

  • MegansMenagerie

    Megan from MegansMenagerie said 5 years ago

    I love this! My mother have me one that has been in our family for years! I'm so happy to have it and use it quite frequently. It's perfect!!!

  • LivingVintage

    LivingVintage from LivingVintage said 5 years ago

    Great! U've got the Japense version.

  • HappyEarthTea

    Niraj Lama from HappyEarthTea said 5 years ago

    Nice find that recipe of Ms Hannah Glasse. I can only imagine that she was not spending too much time in the kitchen where a retinue of servants must have labored for the master's meals. That curry of her's would have been awful, and on top of that with all that pepper it would have been fiery. A surefire way to keep yourself from hosting obligations? About the proto-curry, that must have been way back. During the Indus Valley civilization, and immediately after that there were a lot of food rules with emphasis on austerity. Besides fasting, certain spices could be had on certain days only. In fact even today some Hindu sects avoid garlic and onion for religious purposes. Vegetarianism was also widely practiced. Turns out such discipline was good for you, unlike the indiscriminate and voracious appetite of today that has us all sick. Back in India, cooking got more exciting in 13th century onwards as it came under the Muslim rule. The Moughal Empire contributed a lot towards making Indian, especially north Indian cuisine more cosmopolitan, with the use of even more diverse range of spices that the invaders carried from home. Even today in India "Moughlai" cooking is common, and always has the heaviest infusion of spices.

  • HappyEarthTea

    Niraj Lama from HappyEarthTea said 5 years ago

    I just wrote this rather long comment and it never posted :(

  • westlakedesigns

    Kerri Westlake from westlakedesigns said 5 years ago

    My mortar and pestle are my favourite kitchen tools! The difference in flavour between freshly ground and pre- ground spices is incredible. Thanks for inspiring me to try making my own curry powder!

  • SqueakyCleanBath

    Jennifer from SqueakyCleanBath said 5 years ago

    A foodie historian - I love it! And this makes me want to dig out my mortar and pestle that's still packed away in boxes from when I moved to my apartment. :) I've actually never had curry, but that recipe looks easy to make and delicious. I will definitely be giving it a try.

  • whatnomints

    Sasha from whatnomints said 5 years ago

    We use a coffee-grinder at home for our spices, but mortar and pestles are certainly beautiful and useful. I actually use them quite regularly in lab to grind soil samples!! ;)

  • mattyhandmadecrafts

    Matejka Max from NattyMatty said 5 years ago

    A must have in every kitchen!

  • untamedrose

    Breanna from untamedrose said 5 years ago

    I love my mortar and pestle, use it all the time! It really does make a difference :)

  • valeriephoto

    Valerie from valeriestitchery said 5 years ago

    I've never used a mortar and pestle, but doesn't the flavor of the different spices eventually work its way into the pores of the pestle and adulterate the flavor of subsequent different spices ground therein?

  • LaMeowVintage

    Regan from LaMeowVintage said 5 years ago

    I am going to try this recipe tonight.

  • jessgreenleaf

    Jess Greenleaf from GREENLEAFblueberry said 5 years ago

    My mother gifted me with her large black marble mortar and pestle for Christmas this year. It is useful for so many different applications in the kitchen, from pounding fresh tellicherry peppercorns to grinding down roasted cumin for homemade garam masala. Plus it's beautiful. I consider a mortar and pestle to be an absolute kitchen necessity.

  • ikabags

    IKA PARIS from ikabags said 5 years ago

    Love to read ! Thanks for your time and sharing with us !

  • jessgreenleaf

    Jess Greenleaf from GREENLEAFblueberry said 5 years ago

    My mother gifted me with her large black marble mortar and pestle over the holidays. It's useful for so many kitchen applications, from pounding fresh tellicherry peppercorns to grinding down roasted cumin for a homemade garam masala mixture. It's on my list of kitchen necessities.

  • lmouer

    Lynsey from lmouer said 5 years ago

    Great story! Thanks for sharing!

  • auntjanecan

    Jane Priser from JanePriserArts said 5 years ago

    I love mortar and pestles! And curry! This is a wonderfu lread.

  • ArtyDidact

    Sharon Parker from ArtyDidact said 5 years ago Featured

    Such an interesting article! I love to learn the history behind ordinary things like that. I love my mortar and pestle and mostly use it to break up dried rosemary into smaller bits. This curry recipe looks delicious, and I love the idea of grinding the curry spices all together yourself instead of buying them powdered. I might just have to try it.

  • deadsetbabes

    dead set babes from deadsetbabes said 5 years ago

    As with a lot of commenters, I LOVE my mortar & pestel - we've had one since I was little & I grew up grinding my own spices. Will definitely try this recipe, thank you!!!

  • ArtyDidact

    Sharon Parker from ArtyDidact said 5 years ago

    How interesting to read about a little culinary history. And the recipe looks delicious. Thanks!

  • accentonvintage

    accentonvintage from accentonvintage said 5 years ago

    Great article and recipe! Thanks!

  • lcarlsonjewelry

    Liesl Carlson from lcarlsonjewelry said 5 years ago

    Fabulous!!

  • mazedasastoat

    mazedasastoat from mazedasastoat said 5 years ago

    I have a small white marble mortar & pestle that I use almost all the time, & a HUGE antique cast iron one that makes me feel like a real witch! Freshly ground spices are much nicer than bought powdered ones. Nice post, I can almost smell the curry!

  • sandrostumpo

    Sandro Stumpo from GalleryDiModa said 5 years ago

    That curry looks so good. I make mine with coconut milk.

  • bedouin

    Nicole from Crackerjackarma said 5 years ago Featured

    Terrific article ~ I use this method for grinding 90% of the time . I didn't grow up with many kitchen conveniences and still can pretty much make do with whats around ~ medicinal herbs and cooking spices taste so much better freshly ground.

  • christineshmisteen

    CHRISTINE SHMISTEEN from TheArtOfFinerThings said 5 years ago

    Mine is almost exclusively used for garlic. I think I would die without it. Alton brown recommends a coffee grinder for spices.

  • TheRobinsTree

    Robin from TheRobinsTree said 5 years ago

    This sounds tasty! There is nothing better than grinding up your own, home grown, dried herbs.

  • sdrafke

    Suzette from Suzetteupcycled said 5 years ago

    NOW I KNOW why England is obsessed with CURRY!! WOW! Thanks for the history lesson!

  • memckeen

    LovelySquid from LovelySquid said 5 years ago

    Yummy curry! I love my mortar and pestle, whether it is for making homemade chai mix or grinding garlics and chilies for kimchee.

  • ZorroPlateado

    Carole from ZorroPlateado said 5 years ago

    Wonderful post! Going to check out some of these shops....

  • jwlc

    Josephine from MettleMakes said 5 years ago

    Thank you for this thoughtful article and the recipe! While faster alternatives exist to the mortar and pestle, I think the mortar and pestle allows people to take it slow and enjoy the experience.

  • gaiadesignstudios

    gaiadesignstudios from GaiaDesignStudios said 5 years ago

    Very interesting!

  • H88255

    H88255 from HillarysSuperfoods said 5 years ago

    Preparation is key when deciding to cook a meal. The best part is the first bite!

  • FluteTeacher

    Lisa from FluteTeacher said 5 years ago

    That sounds great! I'm going to have to try it. And I love mortars and pestles!

  • gboliver

    Gail Oliver from AttentionGetting said 5 years ago

    Great to see a tool that is still used today.

  • TheHickoryTree

    Linda from TheHickoryTree said 5 years ago

    My son bought a mortar and pestle - he loves to make his own spice concoctions and left it with me when he left for college 6 years ago and I use it for everything. He's on to his Ph.D so looks like I get to keep it even longer. Its simplistic brilliance at it's best.

  • MayAvenue

    Margaret Kelly from MayAvenue said 5 years ago

    I really enjoyed reading this, and excited to check out Sarah's blog! I'm looking forward to trying this curry recipe- I have never made my own curry spice mix, I usually purchase it already ground and mixed. Since I'm vegetarian I'd love to try it with veggies over rice!

  • 118jan

    Janette from AmericanDollClothes said 5 years ago

    Thanks for the wonderful recipe. I have always used my mortar and pestie as decor, your article has encouraged me to do more. Thank you!

  • WoodlandCottage

    WoodlandCottage from WoodlandCottage said 5 years ago

    I received a mortar and pestle several years ago, and thank goodness! I don't know how I lived without them for so long! Thanks for sharing!

  • destroymodernart

    Ana Louis from destroymodernart said 5 years ago

    My Grandmother used to make this for special occasions- when she died I found a huge box of dried turmeric roots and bottles of spices and bags of seaweed etc... I still use her nutmegs- but I gave up on chicken. Maybe Paneer and veggies instead?

  • SimpleTraditions

    SimpleTraditions from SimpleTraditions said 5 years ago

    Thank you so much for sharing this. A friend of mine use to make curry chicken for us all the time, but we moved away. My husband has been saying how much he misses it. Can't wait to give this a try!

  • SHM2013

    Silvia from MarinaBosettiDesigns said 5 years ago

    I have been looking at these for so long now - it's done. I am going to get me one! Thanks for sharing your story!

  • SkyBox

    Jenny from SkyBox said 5 years ago

    This looks delicious!

  • BlueBrocade

    BlueBrocade from BlueBrocade said 5 years ago Featured

    Years ago I was first introduced to the many uses of mortars and pestles and I have never looked back. The circular rhythm, the satisfaction in the effort of turning hard spices into soft powder, and I adore their timeless appeal on my kitchen counter. I have a large one and small both in stone, side by side, they remind me of the richness that comes from taking the time to cook and make by hand.

  • irinisklavounou

    irini from IrinisWorld said 5 years ago

    In India one rarely hears spice mixtures referred to as Curry. They are called instead a 'massala' which literally means a mix and each area will have its own distinctive massala. Curry would appear to be a generally western notion. I have two beautiful mortar and pestles made of onyx, one large and one small, both of which i use daily to grind up borax for the flux i use in my metalwork. I agree that it is a great pleasure to use such a simple and effective tool.

  • BentTwistedCreations

    Danielle Lewandowski from BentTwistedCreations said 5 years ago

    That sounds delish! I love foods with flavor! Most Americanized foods are boring to me. I definitely need to invest in a good mortar/pestle!

  • janeeroberti

    Jane E Roberti from janeeroberti said 5 years ago

    I am a spicenik and have about 100 jars of whole spices. My Indian friends taught me to make curry their way: toasted whole spices, grind in (surprise!) electric coffee grinder. Same way I make a killer mole. I'm hungry!

  • aressa

    aressa from OriginalBridalHanger said 5 years ago

    Wow! Looks great!

  • MariaHelenaDesign

    Maria Helena from MariaHelenaDesign said 5 years ago

    I just love these kitchen history articles! ... and I will try out that recipe, instead of just pinning it :)

  • FantasticaIdea

    Roberta from FantaIdea said 5 years ago

    I'm going out to buy chicken and curry....

  • benjclark

    benjclark said 5 years ago

    Egads -- now I'm hungry for curry and I've just finished breakfast.

  • ulovejewelry

    Universal Love Jewelry from ULoveJewelry said 5 years ago

    Love pestle & mortars!!

  • AudreyKerchnerPhotog

    Aud Kerchner from AudreyKerchnerstudio said 5 years ago

    Love my mortal and pestle. Use it more than I thought I would.

  • breadsauce

    breadsauce said 5 years ago

    The simplest curries are often the best. The one featured here is actually the second one published in English - from Hannah Glasse's later edition (1751). The 1747 version was spiced with 30 peppercorns and some coriander seeds - roasted on a shovel - then of course, beaten 'very fine' in a mortar and pestle. Hannah evidently found a more authentic source for her improved 1751 fourth edition cookbook. There is a very similar curree powder that calls for the more exotic galangal rather then ginger in Martha Lloyd's cookbook from the turn of the century (18th/19th) - Martha was a friend of Jane Austen's and married Jane Austen's brother, but surprisingly Jane never had any of her characters dining on curree. Perhaps it was simply too exotic and she might alienate her readers... So glad others are as keen on food in history - and mortars and pestles - as I am!

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