How To Use A Mortar And Pestle To Maximize Flavour In Your Cooking

Food Crush: Toronto’s queen of Thai cuisine, chef Nuit Regular, explains why she can’t live without this low-tech tool.

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Mortar and pestle made of granite on teal background.

If you’ve eaten Thai food in Toronto, you’ve probably tasted Nuit Regular’s influence. The self-taught chef and restaurateur is credited with introducing the city to authentic Thai cooking through the restaurants she and her husband, Jeff, have opened together, including Sukothai (which now has four locations), Pai, Sabai Sabai and Kiin.

But despite running bustling restaurants in downtown Toronto, Regular’s favourite kitchen tool is decidedly low-tech: her mortar and pestle.

If this aesthetically pleasing tool tends to function only as a piece of decoration in your kitchen, you might want to whip it out the next time you’re grinding spices, smashing garlic, crushing nuts or working with herbs. Regular says that bashing foods with a mortar and pestle enhances the flavour because it infuses ingredients with their own oils. While it might be easier to throw ingredients for something like a curry paste in a food processor, Regular recommends doing it by hand. “It takes time,” she says, “but it’s worth it.”

The mortar and pestle reminds Regular of her childhood in Thailand, when she would cook with her mom. Clay and granite sets are common in Thailand, she says. The clay mortars (bowls) come with wooden pestles and are usually used to make papaya salad. Granite sets, however, are what most people use at home because they’re much more versatile. Regular recommends looking for a granite set that’s ten inches high (you don’t want your ingredients splashing out). These large bowls are difficult to find, but major retailers, such as Hudson’s Bay and Bed Bath and Beyond, sell granite sets in a variety of sizes.

If you’re making a marinade, sauce or curry paste, Regulars says to pound your dry ingredients before adding wet ingredients to the mix. To make it easier to mash, she also suggests chopping your vegetables before adding them in.

Regular also advises covering  the mortar with your hands and smiling as you bash your ingredients around. This isn’t just for kickswhen you’re smiling, your eyes are half closed,  and therefore protected from any especially strong smells emanating for your new favourite kitchen tool.

Easy, everyday ways to use your mortar and pestle

Try using your mortar and pestle for a soothing tea. Crush cloves with it or bruise some mint leaves before them adding to hot water.

If you’re looking for something a little stronger than tea, use your mortar and pestle to muddle mint leaves with lime juice and sugar for a mojito.

Anytime you need to crush whole spices or fresh herbs for a marinade, turn to your mortar and pestle to maximize flavour.

For chunky hummus, ditch the food processor or blender and make this Middle Eastern dip with a mortar and pestle.

Chef Nuit Regular was a panelist at Chatelaine: The Big Dish event in Toronto on Sunday, October 29. Click here for more interviews and stories from the women who took part.