The power of mortar and pestle

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There are family members you never meet, those whose absences are filled with memories of people who knew them. I never met my great-grandmother Osunfunke Thomas (née Olatunji), but I forged an image of her from the story of her death, as told to me by my mother and her children. sisters. She was 76, and it happened quite suddenly, as she was crushing herbs for dinner on a grinding wheel.

This memory goes against even the few photographs I have seen of her. In them, it is light, less solid than I had been led to believe. I may not have known her, nor the exact details of her life, but I do know her indomitable spirit. And I know the grindstone, called olo in Yoruba, that she was working with that day in 1982 in Lagos, Nigeria. My grandparents kept it and used it at home. And I think about it – and her – every time I work with ingredients and extract their essences into my mortar and pestle.

I have a range of devices that perform all the functions of a good mortar and pestle. I grind five-pound bags of heirloom corn for ogi, a fermented corn porridge for breakfast, in a food processor. I pass nuts and seeds through a blender to make kunun gyada and other drinks. When I do a pepper soup mixture of whole spices, I look first at my mortar and pestle, then at the spice mill next to it. I catch the mill probably 99 times out of 100.

I don’t have to imagine my great-grandmother’s reaction to this. She lived long enough to know about these inventions and would never touch them.

“She crushed her fresh spices every day,” my mother reminds me.

This aversion to gadgets plays a disproportionate role in the image I have of her and the one that people share with me. As laborious as the process was, Iya Oko, as we call her, Yoruba for “mother of the farm”, swore by the culinary methods that supported her. Manual grinding of spices, herbs, aromatics: it was his ritual.

She never claimed it was the only, just the best way to extract the oils and aromas from her ingredients. In West African cuisine and many cuisines around the world, manual pounding and grinding reveals distinct qualities from a variety of ingredients. Mashed yam, banga soup, and akara are just a few Nigerian dishes that can be made with shortcuts, but when made with traditional mortars and pestles, they take on nuanced textures that machines can’t. just not reproduce.

While a modern device can mimic a result, it can also erase centuries-old processes. Kneading dough, shaping balls, or even grinding and fermenting grains are all physical, even soothing, gestures. Iya Oko’s methods, I would like to believe, were not born out of a stubborn disregard for modern equipment; she just had faith in the methods that had served her well.

And his methods and his spirit inspired this recipe, a roast fish with a marinade filled with crushed aromatics like lemongrass, ginger, shallots and scotch bonnet pepper. Any soft whole fish will take on the flavors well. I use my asanka, a traditional Ghanaian earthenware mortar lined with fine grooves, and a two-sided wooden pestle to gently work the ingredients. The reward is the nuance and texture, and a release of oils and essences from the ingredients to give a deeper flavor. You might not have an asanka or a grindstone. You may consider removing the food processor, and you may: Mortar and pestle are optional, but strongly encouraged.

Recipe: Roasted whole fish with lemongrass and ginger


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