Lockdown Musings | The Joy of a Mortar & Pestle

At the beginning of lockdown, I announced on twitter that I didn’t like cooking. It felt like a confession, an illicit secret. This was the time to find my domestic goddess, to relish in the nourishment of cooking! I write about food, I know about food, I can talk about cooking. I know how to cook; I just don’t enjoy it. Sorry.

Roxane Gay, in Hunger, talks about cooking as an act of self-care, which is something I firmly believe in. But my mind is always in a hundred different places at once, there is always a book that I would prefer to be reading than perfecting a dish, and I get stressed about screwing up the meal.

My mother is a wonderful cook. When she married my father, at 21, she lived a year in the family farm deep in the Borneo interior, where my dad was doing research – and learnt to cook over an open fire. When we left Malaysia, she was a single mother of two small children, balancing night shifts as a nurse at a rest home and her skills as a cook meant that she was able to balance small finances with healthy meals. Everything was homemade – bread, granola, yoghurt, ice-cream; my food history is full of incredible home-cooked food (which probably explains my romance with McDonald’s).

Mortar and Pestle

Like many parents, cooking was a chore for my mother, so in school holidays we children were given a budget and we cooked. From at least the age of 10, a weekly holiday activity was meal planning and wandering around the supermarket with a calculator. The planning I enjoyed, the execution bored me; my sister is an intuitive and great cook, so I would just follow her instructions. Over time, I have married, dated, lived with people who have been excellent cooks and of course, for pleasure and work I eat out a lot. My need to cook has been very limited. I have learnt to cook almost via osmosis; I understand flavours, I have a good palate and I am practical – but the joy is not the same as others have.

Over Easter this year I decided to wear all my sarongs – a different routine, a thing of comfort, they’re pretty and it has been sunny! Wearing them has reminded me of cooking. I had also started to miss flavours that I take for granted in my life: the spices and heat of Asian food. I have never mastered how to cook with chilli, and I was getting frustrated with this; the luxury of living in London is that I can eat almost whatever I want to by going out, as someone is cooking it well, somewhere in the city.

The frustration led me to my favourite cookbooks; Asma Khan’s Indian Kitchen, MiMi Aye’s Mandalay and The Secrets of the Red Lantern by Pauline Nguyen. All the recipes I read through were about mixing ingredients I know, love and feel comfortable with. And, I could do it all in my mortar & pestle.

It was this realisation, the simplicity of a familiar tool that made me understand that yes, it is fine to just enjoy one aspect of cooking. I never cut garlic, I only smash it in mortar & pestle – I use it all the time, almost mindlessly delighting in the physical violence of the act.

Mortar and Pestle with spice paste ingredients

And dear god, the joy of smashing up spices you love in one bowl is glorious! It is particularly joyful whilst sipping a negroni and listening to the new Fiona Apple album. It’s a release. I can imagine smashing through the glass ceiling, smashing patriarchy, smashing the Tories and their inequality – it is my domestic burn-the-house-down energy.

The mortar and pestle has a long history, across many cultures. It is first recorded as a medicinal tool in Ebers Papyrus, an ancient Egyptian text from approximately 1500 BC. Jill Norman’s The Completely Book of Spices has a lovely illustration of one in her section ‘Spices as folk medicine’. In South America bigger versions were used for pounding grain. This is a technology that has not changed across time and space, except for size and materials (there is a good, brief article on the Atlantic about mortar & pestle history).

Using a Mortar and Pestle

My earliest memory of a mortar and pestle is set in the same farm my mother spent her first year of marriage. My aunty pounded tapioca leaves in a large wooden version, standing up to do so.

The use of a mortar & pestle is spiritual, it connects us with an ancient tradition of cooking; it is rhythmical and cathartic, it is quick and efficient, it lets the scent of the spices waft up, it is versatile. Simply put, it is pleasing.

I am now relaxing into the idea of cooking. First, I smell all the spices and choose which ones I am in the mood for – always garlic, usually ginger and either white of black pepper. My other go-tos are turmeric, cumin, coriander seeds, paprika, and cinnamon. It’s can be good to heat up seeds to get some of the oils out, but for me it’s about ease and not over thinking. I slice onions, and whilst they are gently frying, I bash everything else together with the mortar & pestle, and add to the pan with the onions! The smell is glorious, and anything I throw in (usually just veg) works fine, with a little stock, coconut milk, or rice wine vinegar, or all of the above.

No thinking, just the joy of pummelling spice.


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4 Comments to "Lockdown Musings | The Joy of a Mortar & Pestle"

  1. NickyB

    What a wonderful, evocative post. Our relationship with cooking isn’t always simple. Loved it.

  2. Lisa

    Aah, this is beautiful. Finding that connection is sometimes all we need to spark a bit of enjoyment. That and bashing things about!

  3. Binita Shah

    What a joy it was to read this. I’m with you on always having garlic! a staple for my cooking!! Smashing things in a pestle and mortar is therapeutic on so many levels xx

  4. Fiona Maclean

    My mother HATED cooking – and she was a doctor’s wife in a small English town. The Doctor was expected to entertain and his wife to do the cooking. And, the doctor’s wife also had to do the catering for various events (the local tennis tournament, bridge club galas etc). I genuinely do enjoy cooking but I always wonder how that was affected by my childhood – just like yours but differently!


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