I can remember from a very young age watching my father use a speckled stone bowl to grind spices, garlic and chiles into a fragrant oblivion. I would relish in the nuanced and bold tastes of the salsas and pastes that he would concoct using the most basic ingredients, following the same steps my grandmother used when creating dishes for the family after long days in the fields as a migrant farmworker.
It wasn’t until I was older that I realized not every family in my neighborhood had a molcajete: a simple yet remarkable culinary tool. A tool endowed with ancient traditions and the ability to extract a depth of flavor from something as ubiquitous as a store-bought tomato.
Ignacio M Sánchez Prado, a professor of Spanish and Latin American Studies at Washington University, told HuffPost that “the molcajete is a tool that traces back to Pre-Columbian times. Its name comes from náhuatl (a group of Uto-Aztec languages) and is used to grind powders and, primarily, salsas. It represents, for me, a long-standing history of culinary practices, tied to the artisanal craft of cooking and the persistence of indigenous knowledge in modern Mexico.”
It’s pretty extraordinary that the seemingly antiquated molcajete hasn’t been replaced by modern kitchen appliances. Prado explained that this could be because the metal blades of a blender or food processor simply don’t have the same effect as hand-grinding seeds, chiles or herbs.
″[A molcajete] infuses a mineral flavor to salsas that is absent from the blender and merges flavors but keeps the identity of the ingredients alive,” Prado said. “You also have more control of texture and when making spice pastes, it integrates the ingredients in a way that favors flavor.”
Jose Garces, an Ecuadorian American restaurant owner and Iron Chef, told HuffPost that he likes to use a molcajete to make “salsa macha, which is made with a combination of chiles, garlic, nuts and seeds that are fried in oil. I take the fried bits and aromatics and use the molcajete to grind them down into a usable paste that can serve as the base for a salsa.”
Not to be confused with smooth mortar and pestles made from marble or American concrete replicas, a traditional molcajete is chiseled from a special kind of basalt stone which is textured enough to release oils from the ingredients and porous enough to hold onto flavors with each use.
“The most important aspect of a good molcajete is the material and craftsmanship. It really needs to be made of volcanic rock, preferably by an artisan who uses the old ways,” Garces said.
According to Mexican chef Alfredo Oropeza, these “old ways” can take “more than 8 hours of work that involves the artisans going to the mountain to bring the volcanic stone to the workshop.”
Oropeza explained that “part of the magic and tradition of a molcajete is that before using it, you must ‘cure’ or clean it,” which you can accomplish in a few ways: “Some like to cover it with garlic, there are others that cover the little cracks by grinding rice into the basin, and others place the molcajete inside the oven at medium temperature for 20 minutes,” Oropeza said.
Just how long can a molcajete last? According to Laura G Gutiérrez, an author and associate professor in the Department of Mexican American and Latin Studies at the University of Texas, “forever.”
“It can easily outlive several blenders in one’s kitchen. In fact, most molcajetes outlive their owner’s life and usually get passed down to the next generation,” Gutiérrez said.
Aside from its flavor-enhancing abilities and impressive longevity, Garces told HuffPost that a molcajete is, in many ways, a material representation of culture and the myriad instances in which Mexican cuisine has influenced its surroundings and brought people together.
“Mexican cooking, with its festive and bright nature, really exemplifies the beauty in celebrating with friends and family. The cuisine, like the culture, has many layers of elements and complexity, that adds depth to the rich culinary traditions of the United States,” Garces said.
My grandmother passed away two years ago, and her molcajete, nearly smooth after decades’ worth of meals, is a tangible reminder of the memories she left behind and an extension of the rich culinary traditions Garces mentioned. If you also want to share in this special aspect of Mexican culture, keep reading to see a few authentic molcajetes that can help you begin your own family traditions.
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A traditional-shaped molcajete
True to tradition, this molcajete is hand-chiseled to resemble a pig and has a flat tejolete pestle, ideal for grinding spices and other ingredients. Made in Mexico using a single piece of lava stone and measuring just over 10 inches across and almost 5 inches deep, this durable and time-honored design is great for prepping and serving authentic Mexican dishes.
Get it from World Market for $34.99.
An authentic mid-range option
This genuine molcajete is hand carved from the natural stones of the Popocatepetl Volcano, located just 45 miles south east of Mexico City. The ergonomically designed pestle replicates that of Mexican culinary tradition, and the bowl measures 8.5 inches across and 5 inches tall.
Get it from ThreadsWestDesigns at Etsy for $49.99.
A one-of-a-kind option made by Mexican artisans
Crafted from 100% pure stone extracted from a now-extinct volcano, this molcajete is a true representation of Mexican history and craftsmanship, originating in Michoacán, western Mexico. The bowl measures 8-inches wide and 3-inches deep, and the fine finish makes it easy to cure and retain flavor. Each molcajete purchased helps support a local artisan community in Michoacán while also preserving a centuries’ old tradition.
Because this is a one-of a kind piece, there is only one available. However, you can shop similar molcajetes from this seller on Etsy.
Get it from Mechuacan at Etsy for $119.