The Thai Mortar and Pestle

During my first three months of service in the Peace Corps I resided in Tambon Ban Hip in the district of Uthai and our OTOP product (see below for explanation of OTOP) was the krok saak, or mortar and pestle. I had never used a mortar and pestle before; there had never been any need. In the states we can purchase all of our sauces and pastes and mixed goods premade on the shelves of any grocery store. Aside from adding a few spices here and there, most of the work is typically done for us … at least the way I used to cook!

My mortar and pestle, a gift from my mother in Thailand.
My mortar and pestle, a gift from my mother in Thailand.

So when my mae introduced me to the process of making curry paste in her granite mortar and pestle I definitely felt like a farang. She took time to teach me the appropriate techniques; she spoke no English so I relied solely on her actions to learn. She pounded the ingredients into the deep crevice of the mortar – dragging the pestle along the bottom to break up any fibers or large chunks of chilies, lemongrass, and shallots.  I watched her closely, taking in every movement of her hand and every turn of her wrist. When she finally handed me the pestle I attempted to duplicate her movements and I assume by the reaction I got – a clucking of her tongue, shake of her head, and snatching of the pestle to show me again – that I did not do well.

Each time she handed the pestle back to me I would try again and each time she clucked and laughed. Okay let me be a little more accurate. She, and the rest of the villagers that had decided to swing through to watch the phenomenon of an American trying to cook authentic Thai food, laughed at me. I was a little embarrassed (okay, a lot) but kept on trying and by the end of our lesson she had either given up on me or decided that we had reached the “about as good as it’s going to get” stage.

From then on when I offered to help with dinner she would point to the mortar and pestle, giggle, and hand me the knife to chop vegetables. Point made.

Which is why I was thoroughly surprised at her reaction a few weeks later when I approached her with a question. We were a few days away from my departure to my final work site and I had just found out that our local OTOP product was in fact the mortar and pestle. That same evening I came home and asked her who in the village made our OTOP product – that I would like to buy one to take with me … to keep practicing of course.

She smiled widely and pointed to the mortar and pestle sitting, recently used and  still covered in paste remnants on the edge of our kitchen table. I nodded, “yes, the mortar and  pestle, where can I buy one?” She pointed again, smiled, and then walked over to retrieve the mortar and pestle. Frustrated, I began to ask my question a third time but she interrupted me, held the mortar and pestle out in front of her and said “kongkwaan.”


Granite mortar and pestle
Granite mortar and pestle

She was giving  me her mortar and  pestle, the very one she had taught me on just weeks before … the one handmade by the residents of my community and stained with the colors  and smells of hundreds  of batches of curry paste made by my Thai mother … and one by me.

I was speechless.

This same mortar and pestle sits in my kitchen today, a constant reminder of my love for Thai cooking, Thai culture, and most importantly, my Thai family and friends who took care of me during my time in their country.

Not to mention, it’s a pretty handy-dandy tool to have in the kitchen!

I find myself using it quite often when I make curry paste (which is not nearly as often as I’d like to). I’ll admit that I rarely make the entire paste by hand anymore. I have a mini-processor that makes the job a million times easier. But even with that there are always a few ingredients that need a bit of prep prior to making it into the mixer. For example, lemongrass has a very fibrous texture that does better when broken down. Some of the seeds and spices in the paste don’t quite get chopped by the blades of the processor and do better when made into a powder first.

Of course I could skip this step and just buy the fresh lemongrass in a tube or coriander powder in a bottle, but what’s the fun in that? That takes away one of my direct connections to my Thai life and my very first lesson with Thai cooking.

And with that, I think I’m off to make another batch of curry.

OTOP — One Tambon, One Product
OTOP is a sustainable development program in Thailand that promotes local entrepreneurship and the marketing of handmade products all over Thailand. The word tambon means sub-district and under this program, each tambon selects one product to make, market, and sell on the local and international stage. Each area excels in a different unique product. Food items, household goods, pottery, silk clothing, woven mats, textiles, and wood carvings for you are just some of the products you can buy.


Basil Basics

If you were to ask him, Cory would gladly regale you with the story of his first pad ga prao (stir-fried Holy basil) experience. We were at Victory Monument in Bangkok awaiting a van to Kanchanaburi, my home during my stay in Thailand. We had a few minutes to kill and Cory was starving so we sat ourselves down at a tiny metal table outside a ran ahaan (restaurant) on the corner. They had a large pan (similar to those you use in catering) filled with piping hot pad ga prao moo (stir-fried pork and Holy basil). Cory ordered a plate along with a fried egg and began to chow down. He wasn’t more than a few bites in when he looked at me – an expression of delight and pain mixed into one.

The dish was spicy … really really spicy. He made his way through the dish and finished every bite, but it took quite a bit of effort, sweat, and perhaps even a few tears. But, to this day Cory still says it’s one of the best plates of Thai food he’s ever had.

In the years since then and the multitude of Thai restaurants we’ve tried we have never once come across a plate of pad ga prao that delicious, and not for lack of trying. This particular dish is one of our favorites and I’m not exaggerating when I say we’ve ordered it at probably 90% of the Thai restaurants we’ve visited. I will say there are some good dishes out there, but none come even close to that one single plate of food … and I know exactly why.

The basil.

You see, in Thai cooking they use multiple different kinds of basil depending on the particular taste they are trying to achieve. They are all delicious in their own right but each provides a unique taste that makes certain dishes distinctly individual. Pad ga prao is one of those dishes. Traditionally, as stated in the name, this dish is made with bai ga prao, or Thai Holy basil, as opposed to bai horapha (Thai sweet basil) or bai maeng-lak (lemon basil). When you trade out one basil for another, you change (often drastically) the taste of a particular dish and that is exactly what we constantly experience in Thai restaurants locally.

Thai Holy basil, the traditional star ingredient in pad ga prao is incredibly difficult to find in the states. It requires a specific growing environment and is a very fragile plant that doesn’t travel well. So, the majority of Thai restaurants choose to substitute the Holy basil with the more widely available Thai sweet basil.  Why they still call it pad ga prao I will never know, but I digress.

The point is that the type of basil you use in Thai cooking is important! You technically can use whatever you’d like, but don’t expect to get that same awesome authentic taste you’ll find in a traditional and properly made Thai dish.

To help you out a bit, here is a brief description of each of the three main types of basil used in Thailand along with a tidbit on the traditional basil used in Italian cooking. If you can take the time to find the appropriate basil called for in your recipe, you’ll be a much happier camper.

Thai basil – bai horapha โหระพา

Thai Holy basil is used in many types of dishes including curries, soups, stir-fries, and salads.
Thai Holy basil is used in many types of dishes including curries, soups, stir-fries, and salads. So delicious!

Thai ‘sweet’ basil grows from a purplish stem and sprouts spear-like leaves with a slightly jagged edge. This basil has a distinct scent similar to that of anise or licorice and is sometimes referred to as anise basil for that reason. This basil is the most widely used in Thai cooking and can be found in curries, soups, stir-fries, and salads. This basil is also sweet enough that it can be eaten raw as well as cooked within dishes.

You can find this basil at nearly all Asian markets as well as some grocery stores with a decent ethnic food section and it usually isn’t too expensive either. Locally, my favorite places to buy this basil is JD’s Market in Lynnwood (super inexpensive) and Uwajimaya in Bellevue (great quality, very fresh!). I’ve also found that it keeps the longest of all the basil types that I’ve tried.

Thai Holy basil – bai gka-prowกะเพรา

Holy basil is used mostly in stir-fried dishes and has a very peppery taste.
Holy basil is used mostly in stir-fried dishes and has a very spicy or peppery taste. Very difficult to find in the Pacific Northwest!

Thai Holy basil is very different from the sweet basil both in look and in taste. Holy basil, also called hot basil has a reddish purple tone around the stem and base of the leaves. The leaves are also jagged but are smaller and more fragile and slightly fuzzy to the touch. This basil gives off a scent similar to cloves and has a very peppery taste. It adds a spiciness to dishes (hence being called hot basil) and is best if eaten cooked rather than raw. This basil is mostly used in stir-fried dishes.

Holy basil is very difficult to find locally. You can easily find seeds to grow your own but quality seeds are also hard to come by and the weather/temperatures in the Pacific Northwest make it difficult. You can order Holy basil plants from a few websites but they only ship during ‘on’ seasons which are approximately April to July and again October through December.

Lemon Basil – bai maeng-lakแมงลัก

Lemon basil is used in some very specific Thai dishes including khanom chin nam ya.
Lemon basil is used in some very specific Thai dishes including khanom chin nam ya.

Unlike Thai sweet basil and Holy basil which can be interchanged without completely ruining a dish, lemon basil has a very distinct lemon/lime taste and there isn’t much alternative.  This basil has pale green leaves that are a bit less jagged than the previous two with a hairy/fuzzy feel. This basil is used in many dishes as well as being served as a garnish in some very specific Thai dishes including khanom chin nam ya.

Lemon basil is also very hard to find locally but is much easier to grow and keep alive than Holy basil. It’s worth a shot to try this one in your herb garden or greenhouse! You can buy seeds at some local Asian markets like Uwajimaya (they have a stand near one of the doors). You can also order them off line at Amazon or some online gardening sites.

Sweet Basil

Sweet basil is used mainly in Italian cooking and should not be subbed into Thai cuisine if you want an authentic taste.
Sweet basil is used mainly in Italian cooking and should not be subbed into Thai cuisine if you want an authentic taste.

Not to be confused with Thai Sweet basil, this basil is the one commonly used in Italian cooking. These leaves are oval shaped and the stemmed look square. The leaves also often have a shiny quality to them. This basil tastes sweet and slightly peppery and are often combined with tomatoes or other vegetables to enhance flavor. The leaves are often eaten raw or mixed in at the very end of dishes so they are served slightly wilted.

Sweet basil can be found in nearly every grocery store … anywhere.

*Note* Due to the fact that I cannot find some of these basils I had to search for some quality photos to use. Please click on the photo to be directed to the original source which may also provide some interesting information about these basils that I didn’t include in my entry.