The mortar and pestle is a fundamental basic of the African kitchen. It would be unimaginable to try to cook, in most places, without it. For the African home cook, the mortar and pestle is where you get things done. It can do anything from pulverizing raw hot pepper and ginger to pounding cassava starch until it transforms into soft and fluffy fufu. It takes the place of an electric food processor and is extremely handy for the hours when the power is out.
Most western kitchens have a smaller, sadder version of the mortar and pestle. No offense, but it’s true. Their version is used traditionally also for making medicine, and it’s useful for grinding very small quantities of things. Spices and anything that needs to be ground into a powder work well, but most western mortar and pestles aren’t even big enough to make a simple guacamole.
This is remedied in the size of a proper African mortar and pestle. A modern household mortar will be at least a foot high, with a pestle that makes a very handy self-defense weapon. A proper mortar and pestle in a traditional African kitchen can be up to thigh-high, with pestles that could easily double as wooden stilts.
When selecting an African mortar and pestle for your modern kitchen, you have a basic choice: wood or metal. The larger, traditional ones are only made from wood, large pieces from old and special trees. The modern ones, however, go either way. We find it easier to keep metal dry and clean. The wooden mortars we’ve had absorb too much liquid and are prone to slowly grow mold. Our metal mortar, on the other hand, also moonlights as a very stylish African wine bucket, very romantic.
Good mortars are always found in the local city market. Choose a good one, and try to make sure that the metal comes from a reputable place. (Although, you might just not want to think too much about this.)