Making a Curry Paste from Scratch (2)
by Kasma Loha-unchit
Tips on Equipment and Technique
See Kasma's blog entry on the Mortar & Pestle.
As already suggested, the one indispensable piece of equipment needed to make exceptional curry pastes is a good, strong, large and heavy mortar and pestle, one that allows you to pound with vigor and twirl in grinding frenzy. It should give you much pleasure with little limitation. In Thailand, there are a few different kinds of mortar and pestle suited for particular purposes. The most efficient for making curry pastes is cut and polished out of granite. It can reduce hard seeds and fibrous herbs down in no time. The pestle and the inside surface of the mortar are polished smooth and are not rough, coarse or porous. Very dense and heavy, they do not chip and last for years even when subjected to vigorous daily pounding. Look for this dark grey stone mortar and pestle set in a Thai or Southeast Asian market near you. It is available in small, medium and large sizes and ranges from about sixteen to twenty-four dollars.
If you are not able to locate a stone mortar and pestle, the more readily available large clay mortar with hard-wood pestle works almost as well. It is tall and deep, dark brown in color, has a fairly smooth surface and is much less expensive, averaging around seven dollars a set. Because wood against clay is not as hard as stone against stone, this mortar and pestle works better pounding a small quantity of fibrous herbs at a time, so that the herbs are not cushioned by themselves in a soft bed. Use a straight pounding motion as well as a grinding motion up and down the rougher sides of the mortar. It also helps to have the hardier ingredients chopped or cut in smaller pieces before pounding.
Some of my students prefer the clay-and-wood combination to the stone because it makes a pleasing and much gentler sound and vibration than the louder and harsher stone-against-stone banging tones. The rhythmic sound of pounding with the clay-and-wood mortar and pestle has brought these students meditative calm. To them, it is worth the extra time.
In Thailand, ingredients that go into a curry paste are pounded together all at once in the mortar. Often, the softer and wetter ingredients like garlic and shallots are placed in whole as they mash up relatively easily. Coarse salt crystals provide some abrasion to reduce the harder and more fibrous herbs and spices as well as pull their flavors together. The pounding goes on until everything in the mortar is mashed into a paste and is no longer distinguishable. This can take a long time for someone inexperienced in mortar and pestle techniques.
If you are a beginner with mortar and pestle, work on one ingredient at a time, starting with the dry spices. They are easily pulverized with a rolling motion of the pestle around the bottom and sides of the mortar while its surface is still dry. Remove them from the mortar before proceeding with the most fibrous of the herbs. Pound one ingredient at a time, a small amount at a time, moving from the hardiest to the softest and wettest. Herbs reduce more quickly when pounded with a sturdy up and down motion; only after their fibers have been adequately crushed does a rolling wrist motion contribute to their reduction. When all the ingredients have been reduced to powder or paste, combine them and pound together until they are well blended and no longer distinguishable. This process takes less time overall and, for the less experienced, produces a paste that is more uniform.