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Japan Perfected the Mortar and Pestle With the Suribachi and Surikogi

The ridges in a suribachi, a Japanese mortar, help crush ingredients without bruising them, keep ingredients in the bowl, and yield a pleasantly toothsome textures

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When I first got my suribachi and surikogi, I was nervous. Growing up, neither of my parents used any kind of mortar and pestle regularly, so I had no idea how to use the ceramic bowl with its intricate ridges and carved wooden muddler. But, in an effort to connect with my heritage and challenge myself to cook recipes that require more technique, I turned to the centuries-old duo as an adult. I now use them almost every day.

Nearly every culture has its own take on the mortar and pestle, built with materials found naturally in their backyards (whether that’s wood, marble, or volcanic rock), and optimized for the traditional local cuisine. The Japanese suribachi, though, is a composite of multiple cultures. The basic form was introduced to Japanese cooks and medicinal practitioners by Chinese traders sometime in the 11th century. It came along with traditional Kampo medicine, and Buddhist monks may have originally used the mortars and pestles to grind up herbal remedies. Then in the 16th century, following the Japanese invasion of Korea, Korean methods began to inform Japanese ceramics, leading to the typical suribachi style: glazed on the outside, but unglazed on the inside. That origin story lingers in some modern uses for the tools, like grinding sesame seeds (Japan ranks as the second-largest importer of sesame seeds in the world, just after China), which spread to Japan from India along with Buddhism, and were used for both medicinal properties and spiritual significance.

But it isn’t easy to grind sesame seeds, which are both delicate and liable to fly across the room if even gently nudged. You need a tool optimized to trap and crush ingredients without bruising them. Though there are mortars and pestles everywhere, the Japanese model stands out for the grooves inside that break down ingredients, paired with a lightweight wooden pestle that’s easy to wield, allowing them to easily extract flavor from ingredients through clever design, not high-tech gadgetry.

Why you need one

In a 21st-century American kitchen, when a recipe calls for pulverized ingredients, you might be tempted to throw them into a Nutribullet and call it a day. But using a blade to break down seeds and spices doesn’t encourage the gentle extraction of flavors that recipes rely on. Blades reduce ingredients in size without necessarily bringing out their essential oils or flavor. Breaking down ingredients in a suribachi is the kindest way to treat delicate herbs and seeds with intense flavor profiles, and doing so is way easier than you might think.

The suribachi and surikogi have become some of the few essential tools in the Japanese kitchen because they get the job done efficiently. Timing is a central component of Japanese cooking, as cooks carefully layer flavors of salt, sugar, soy, vinegar, and miso into recipes. There’s no time to fiddle with an onerous mortar and pestle.

If you’ve used granite pestles before, you might be surprised how little pressure is needed to get results in a suribachi; you’ll quickly see that the grooves do part of the grinding work for you, easing the physical burden and speeding up the process. The grooves also leave enough texture for a toothsome mouthfeel, and the intricate pattern of the grooves can even direct ingredients back toward the center of the bowl as you grind, keeping items from bouncing out. The surikogi is just as optimized, with a lightweight wooden handle traditionally made from the branches of a sansho pepper tree (thought to have purification properties by Japanese herbalists).

The suribachi excels at wet mixtures as well as dry. For nerigoma, a Japanese sesame paste similar to tahini, simply grind toasted sesame seeds and slowly add in sesame oil until you like the consistency. Other Japanese dishes like shiraae (mashed tofu salad) and tsukune and tsumire (meatballs and fish balls) can also be mashed up in the mortar and pestle. Beyond Japanese cuisine, the suribachi and surikogi can muddle herbs for cocktails, make a curry paste, break down an avocado for toast, or emulsify an aioli.

Some companies have been making suribachi in Japan for hundreds of years, utilizing various clay traditions like Mino pottery and Iwami pottery, and they’ve perfected sourcing their clay and firing their bowls. Due to the composition of the clay used in traditional pottery, an old-school suribachi naturally resists water, allowing it to hold up better over time. (Newer suribachi are fine too, though the quality of the clay and glaze might be a bit lower.)

Depending on where you get them, suribachi bowls come in multiple sizes, though even the larger ones are fairly lightweight. As with many Japanese ceramic tools, suribachi are often beautiful enough to use as serving bowls as well.

How it’s used

Depending on your recipe, you may want to start by toasting your ingredients to enhance flavor, especially if you’re adding nuts or seeds to salad, fried tofu, or rice. Once the ingredients are in the bowl, move the surikogi in a circular motion, almost as if cleaning the interior surface. Apply pressure, but not too much. If you decide to stir in oil for a dressing, aioli, or nerigoma, add a little oil at a time as you emulsify with the surikogi. Because the suribachi is clay, you want to be careful not to use heavier utensils in place of the surikogi, as they might chip the grooves. Once you’re ready to serve, you can use a plastic spatula to transfer your crushed ingredients or sauce out of the bowl or serve directly in the bowl.

To clean, sweep pieces out of the grooves with a cooking brush. Rinse with water and maybe a little soap if needed, then wipe the inside and the surikogi with a dry towel and put them away immediately. Though some models are dishwasher-safe, the tools likely won’t get dirty enough to justify such heavy cleaning, and you may want to be careful depending on the quality of the material.

Where to get one

There are a lot of Japanese stores that ship internationally. I like Jinen, which sources suribachi made in the Iwami style. MTC Kitchen also offers a range of Japanese cooking essentials, including affordable suribachi.

Ray Levy Uyeda is a writer living in the Bay Area.