When I first starting cooking the idea of using a mortar and pestle to make a curry paste by hand seemed like a waste of time. It’s time consuming, onerous and messy. It’s like using a typewriter to type a letter instead of a computer. We have food processers and blenders which can do the job quickly and cleanly, so why bother with a mortar and pestle? But when a recipe asked to use a mortar and pestle, I used one because it seemed a bit more authentic I guess and I wanted to ‘try’ to be true to the recipe. But now I really appreciate using a mortar and pestle, and the benefits it has over a food processor/blender in producing a superior texture and balance of flavour.
What’s the difference between using a mortar and pestle and food processor?
One pounds and the other one chops.
With a mortar and pestle, ingredients are smashed, crushed and pounded. As the ingredients are pounded, their oils are extracted and they release their fragrance, and from these aromas you can perceive the balance of the paste and adjust the ingredients to your desired tastes while it is being made. You end up with a paste that is layered and balanced. While a food processor/blender chops and shreds ingredients, and you end up with a coarsely chopped mixture. A little water usually needs to be added in to facilitate the blending process, to whirl it into a pulp.
So as you can imagine, a mortar and pestle would produce a different paste from a food processor/blender. A pounded paste is more aromatic, and has more breadth and depth of flavour than one produced from a processor/blender.
Using a mortar and pestle is time consuming but it is worth all the effort, so I definitely recommend trying it. Think of it also as a way to release any tentions, anger or frustations you have and pound them all away. This way no one gets hurt.
I made some prik khing which is a dry chilli and ginger curry paste with some prawns and string beans. It’s different from your usual Thai red or green curries as it doesn’t contain some sort of liquid stock like coconut milk.
• Curry paste
- 10 small dried red chillies (soaked and drained)
- 4 red Thai bird’s eye chillies
- 1 ½ tablespoon galangal
- 2 tablespoons garlic
- 3 tablespoons shallot
- 2 tablespoons lemongrass
- 2 tablespoons coriander root/stem
- 1 teaspoon kaffir lime zest (or lime zest)
- 1 teaspoon shrimp paste
- ½ teaspoon white peppercorns
- ½ salt
(you can choose to deseed the chillies to reduce the heat)
• Peanut oil
• 15-20 prawns, shelled and deveined
• 2 cups string beans, chopped into 1cm lengths
• 4-5 thinly sliced kaffir lime leaves
• 2-4 tablespoons water
• 1-3 tablespoons fish sauce
• 1-2 teaspoon palm sugar
• 1-2 tablespoon lime juice
• 2-3 tablespoons crushed peanuts
To make the curry paste – chop up the ingredients the ingredients (this will make it easier to reduce into a paste) and add them in gradually into a mortar and pestle from the hardest and driest to the softest and wettest, with each being reduced to pulp before the next ingredient is added. A curry paste should be pureed as finely as possible, but for this dry paste I didn’t pound it so much so that there would still be some texture.
Blanch the string beans in boiling water for 30 seconds and then rinse thoroughly with cold water.
Heat the up a wok, add peanut oil and cook the prawns until halfway done, remove and set aside.
Add in 2-3 tablespoons of the curry paste and stir fry the paste for 2-3 minutes until it dries slightly, darkens and is aromatic (as it dries out, add in spoonfuls of water to rehydrate and continue frying). Season to taste with some fish sauce and palm sugar.
Add the prawns back into the wok, add in the blanched string beans and stir fry for a bit. Taste the sauce (if necessary, add in more fish sauce or palm sugar).
Add in some lime juice, crushed peanuts and kaffir lime leaves. Stir fry all together and then serve.
Leftover paste can be stored for up to two weeks, sealed tightly with plastic wrap pressed against the surface of the paste and refrigerated in an air tight container.