Sunday, June 30, 2024

Japanese Mortar and Pestle Suribachi & Surikogi

Japanese Mortar and Pestle Suribachi and Surikogi すり鉢とすりこ木

Suribachi mortar with sansho wood surikogi pestle.
Suribachi mortar with sansho wood surikogi pestle

Some typical Japanese dishes need traditional Japanese kitchen tools to get them right or to make them at all. The suribachi / surikogi (Japanese mortar and pestle) combination is one such essential tool.

Just the other night, my wife and I prepared hourensou no goma-ae (spinach dressed in black sesame) and maguro no yamakake (Tuna sashimi topped with mashed Japanese Mountain Yam). Both are very typical Japanese appetizers or side dishes, both go very well with sake.

Further down this text, you can see images of our use of the suribachi and surikogi preparing said dishes. Just as one possible example of the many uses of the Japanese mortar and pestle.

Suribachi with its typical comb pattern.
Suribachi with its typical comb pattern

Suribachi History

The combination of mortar and pestle is one of the oldest kitchen tools in any culture, dating back to the stone age. Hard grain for example could be much more easily cooked or baked after being ground in a mortar. Coarse rock salt was ground for convenient use in the kitchen, even meat went through the mortar and pestle treatment to make it easier digestible.

Those mortars and pestles were typically made of stone, a tradition carried on up to today. Stone mortars and pestles are still frequently in use for grinding spices, the expensive ones made of Italian marble.

As so often, however, the tradition in Japan is a bit different. Mortars and pestles were certainly in use in ancient Japan but in Heian times (794 - 1185), ceramic mortars arrived from China.

Those were much easier to handle than stone mortars and the Japanese pottery kilns soon got in on the business, especially the Bizen kilns in what is now Okayama Prefecture.

It's said that the Bizen kiln folks invented the comb stroke patterns inside the Japanese mortar. Rather than leave the mortar's grinding surface flat or grainy, they drew a well thought-out pattern with a metal comb before sending the pottery into the oven, greatly enhancing the grinding capacities of the mortars.

Those patterns / their variations and improvements over time still set Japanese mortars apart from any other mortars today.

There was one big problem with those patterns ingrained into the mortars, though. Pestles made of stone would quickly destroy that preciously combed surface inside the mortars.

Sansho wood surikogi.
Sansho wood surikogi

The Surikogi

Thus, wooden pestles were introduced. The wood for those pestles had to be hard enough to do even the toughest grinding job, the wood had to be resistant to all the acids released in grinding vegetables, the wood needed a resistance against mold.

After what must have been many experiments, the old masters found out that the wood of the sansho tree, the Japanese Mountain Pepper tree, was the perfect wood for the job. Extremely resilient but at the same time giving off a slight fragrance even after long-term use. A welcome flavor to any dish on the table.

Grinding black sesame in a suribachi.
Grinding black sesame in a suribachi

Uses Past and Present

Common folks used the suribachi on a daily basis. Miso soup has been a staple of Japanese cuisine for hundreds of years and the boiled soy beans making up the miso (soy bean paste) used to be available on the markets only in the form of soft-boiled beans. Thus, every household had to have a large mortar and pestle to turn those boiled soy beans into the paste needed to make a good miso soup. Suribachi were also used for processing all that other food needing a good grind. The mortar and pestle at the house did the job the electrical food processor would take on in the 1960s.

Miso paste became available factory-made at the beginning of the 1900s, other ready-made foods followed post World War II.

In a diminished but more specified capacity, the suribachi stayed on in Japanese household kitchens. Tororo, mashed yama imo (Japanese Mountain Yam), essential as a topping for many udon noodle dishes but also frequently used on top of tuna sashimi, can only produced with a traditional Suribachi grinder. In Japanese, the ground yama imo is called tororo when referring to the soft mush as such, it's called yamakake upon being placed on top of food.

Sansho peels, the edible parts of the sansho (Japanese Mountain Pepper) fruits frequently used as a spice, need to be ground in a traditional mortar for maximum effect.

Traditional families never gave up on the use of their Suribachi, younger generations re-discovered the suribachi / surikogi combination as essential tools in modern gourmet cooking. The sansho wood surikogi still being the favorite today.

Preparing hourensou no goma-ae in a suribachi.
Preparing hourensou no goma-ae in a suribachi

Suribachi Sizes

Suribachi come in many different sizes, their use depending on the amount of spices / foods to be ground.

Suribachi sizes are typically measured by the diameter of their upper rim. The Chinese 寸 (sun) indicating an old Chinese inch (about 32 mm) used to be the standard measurement. Today, you often see suribachi sizes advertised in号 (go). 号 (go) however simply means "number" like in suribachi 6号, meaning Number 6 size which would usually be about 19 cm.

Different Japanese manufacturers however slightly vary in their use of those numbers, more or less based on the measurements in 寸 (sun).
Fortunately, many if not most manufacturers today also use the metric system.

In any case, the difference from one size to the next larger one is usually about 3 cm.

For grinding spices, a rather small suribachi is best, about 10 cm in rim width. For two person-dishes, a size of 18 or 21 cm may the most convenient, larger families / parties of course needing larger Suribachi.

Grinding Japanese Mountain Yam in a Suribachi.
Grinding Japanese Mountain Yam in a Suribachi

Surikogi Sizes

Generally, the surikogi should be a bit longer than the rim diameter of the Suribachi. About one third longer, some sources say. But that's not a strict rule. The mortal and pestle should simply fit comfortably when working with the tools.

Refining the ground yam with a surikogi.
Refining the ground yam with a surikogi

Where to Find

Well-stocked Japanese department stores usually offer a number of suribachi / surikogi combinations. It's of course more of an adventure to travel to the traditional kilns deep in the countryside of western Japan and to an old-fashioned lumber workshop nearby with a master cutting the surikogi by hand.

You can also order your suribachi and surikogi right from your home from Goods From Japan.

Buy Japanese Kitchen Utensils

Goods from Japan offers a variety of Japanese foods and kitchen utensils.

Suribachi & Surikogi Set

Buy ground sansho pepper from S&B

Buy sansho rinds from Mascot

Purchase a range of Japanese foodstuffs and drinks from GoodsFromJapan.

A dish of tuna topped with ground Japanese yam, spinach dressed in black sesame and a cup of sake.
A dish of tuna topped with ground Japanese yam, spinach dressed in black sesame and a cup of sake

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by Johannes Schonherr

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