Whenever I think of Southeast Asian food, I think of the explosive flavors that characterize its dishes. It is rare that you eat anything in countries like Thailand, Malaysia, or Vietnam that you would describe as “subtle.” Most of the time, there are very strong, assertive flavors, or a combination of sweet, salty, sour, and savory that make the dish pop. The most “subtle” dish I can think of is Hainanese chicken rice, of which Singapore, Vietnam, and Thailand all have their own variations, but even then, the chicken rice is so filled with the umami chicken fat flavor that even that, I would never call subtle or faint in taste.
After watching a number of videos on YouTube of Mark Wiens discussing Thai cooking, especially that of his mother-in-law at home in Bangkok, as well as reading Thai and Vietnamese food blogs, what I’ve found is that when making sauces and curries, the center of it all is always, always a good and solid mortar and pestle. After taking a Vietnamese street food cooking class that Chris got me last week, I watched the chef instructor make a mango salad dressing and nuoc cham dipping sauce in a mortar and pestle, and when she tossed all the ingredients together, I was definitely surprised. I’ve made all these sauces before, yet somehow, hers tasted far superior to mine, and we were using the exact same ingredients down to the brand of fish sauce! There is something magical that happens when pounding and hand grinding in between rough pieces of granite that brings out all the oils and flavors of each ingredient and mingles it all together that can never quite be achieved by mincing with a knife or blending in a food processor. It just isn’t the same, and Samin Nosrat calls this out in her Salt Acid Fat Heat book/TV series, as well as her pesto article in The New York Times.
So, now I have a very first-world kitchen dilemma: do I get a granite mortar and pestle, or do I not? It is not so much a debate of whether I can afford it. I once had a friend’s wife look at me like I was the cheapest person on earth when I made a comment in her kitchen after she made a beautiful tart for a dinner party: “Oh, it would be fun to own a tart pan!” She wrinkled her nose. “You know they only cost like 10 bucks, right? You can afford it.” My response? “Well, it’s not about the cost as it is the storage of something that I may use about…. once a year max and whether it even makes sense to buy it if the usage is so low.” However, at about $58 for the Thai one that Serious Eats advocates for, it’s certainly not the cheapest kitchen purchase. It’s more an issue of size (its full capacity in cups is about six) and weight (it’s super heavy because it’s STONE!), and thus space. If I dropped something like that, it would most definitely cause damage to our hardwood floors, if not the actual granite counters in our kitchen. Eeek. If I got one, I’d need to have it permanently displayed somewhere in the kitchen… and I’m pretty much at capacity for kitchen display space at this point.