Kitchn Love Letters

This Kitchen Tool Traveled 10,000 Miles with My Mom — And Now It’s One of My Most Cherished Possessions

updated Mar 18, 2021
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Credit: Sarah Culver
A photo from the writer's book, Farm to Table Asian Secrets.

I remember sitting on the floor of my childhood kitchen, watching my mother flick her wrist back and forth, methodically grinding any one of her signature spice pastes (called bumbu in Indonesian). Into the mortar went the ingredients, one after another, from hard to soft: lemongrass, turmeric, garlic, shrimp paste.  

The shallow, wide bowl of the cobek (mortar) is the perfect foil for the ulekan (pestle). Resembling a buffalo’s horn, the ulekan proves that ergonomic and functional design is not just a modern-day phenomenon, as its origins date back to the stone age.

When my parents migrated to Seattle 20 years ago, my mom packed her beloved cobek and ulekan in her suitcase. The set made the 10,000-mile journey from Southeast Asia to North America safely nestled amongst Ma’s other precious belongings. 

But several years ago I spied the set sitting forlornly on her kitchen counter, unused and collecting dust. Apparently, Ma now prefers the modern conveniences of a food processor. “Capek,” she said, meaning, “so tired.” I can’t blame her, considering she can’t seem to cook for fewer than a dozen people at once! 

Although many Indonesian cooks still prefer the silky texture of a spice paste pulverized with a mortar and pestle, the food processor is so convenient that many of us are willing to overlook a coarser-textured paste. I myself prefer a food processor for tasks like grinding multi-ingredient spice pastes for rendang (caramelized beef curry) or sambal goreng udang (shrimp cooked with spices and coconut milk), and a mortar and pestle for making things like the simple sambal oelek from my cookbook, Farm to Table Asian Secrets

Credit: Patricia Tanumihardja
One of the author's mortar and pestle sets.

My Ma has since given me her mortar and pestle. But even though it’s one of my dearest possessions, it hasn’t seen very much action in my northern Virginia kitchen either. 

The mortar I use most often is a smaller Japanese suribachi (grinding bowl), handmade by my ceramicist friend Miki Palchik, who owns Clay Kitchen Studio. The suribachi and its pestle, called surikogi, are traditionally used to crush sesame seeds, but I also use it to grind hard spices like coriander and cloves, and even rock salt! Glazed on the outside but roughly hewn on the inside, the suribachi snuggles up nicely with other compact kitchen gear on my countertop.

I like my granite mortar and pestle set, too, which I bought it at a discount department store when we were in between homes and most of our stuff was in storage. It’s nothing special, but its heft and all-granite build provide excellent stone-on-stone action and make it ideal for grinding a sambal or a simple soto ayam (turmeric chicken soup) spice paste. Its mortar is sturdy and strong, and I have no fear of putting all my muscle into it; I can tell I won’t break it, but if I do, it’s not like it cost a lot or has any sentimental attachment.

And what about my cobek and ulekan? Like my Ma’s coral brooch that’s tucked away in my jewelry box, this set has been relegated to heirloom status. Although I love it the most, I just can’t bear to use it daily, perhaps for fear it will break. I do pull it out, though — to show off at parties or during cooking demos. Its sentimental value is immeasurable, and it never fails to set the stage for good storytelling, where I share its 10,000-mile journey into my heart and home.

Do you have a kitchen item you love just as much? Tell us about it in the comments!