Alchemy in the Kitchen

By Janet De Neefe

For The Bali Times

The closer to nature each utensil or apparatus,

The more connected the prepared food will be

To the energy of the cosmos.

A Life of Balance, Maya Tiwari

Amidst all my discussions about food, I decided it is time I honor one of the most revered utensils in a Balinese kitchen. Enter: the stone mortar and pestle, or batu base.

The mortar and pestle is synonymous with Balinese food and is essential for the preparation of any Balinese meal. It is affectionately referred to as ibu-panak or mother and child – the mother as the base and the child as the pestle, suggesting its fundamental importance in every kitchen, every home and the crucial unity of the two.

But let’s take an up-close look at this rustic food processor, this kitchen wizard that turns spices into molten gold in seconds (with the aid, of course, of a couple of deft Balinese hands to do the grinding). Have you ever watched the process? The candlenut is usually crushed first, and the spices follow. And I am not talking about a few gingers; think of a generous pile of seeds, nuts, gingers, chilli, garlic, red shallots and so on. The grinding is a delight to watch, as a colorful transformation of sorts takes place. It is rather like alchemy.

And close your eyes and imagine the fragrances that are released in the grinding: when you are combining lemongrass, gingers, coriander seeds and even torch ginger into a paste, the aroma can be as comforting as a soft kiss. But it’s more than that. The uplifting quality of these ingredients classifies them as “happy drugs” or anti-depressants, because of their heart-warming, aromatherapy qualities. You can imagine how the crushing and mixing of brilliant, earthy spices must certainly comfort the soul.

The technique for grinding is rather like kneading bread, a therapeutic action that requires a rocking movement of the hands, as they roll the pestle back and forth. The key is to glide across the stone base and not scrape or grind too heavily, to avoid creating a gritty end result. Let’s face it, there is nothing worse than a gravel-ridden spice paste or grainy curry. And there is no better way for releasing stress.

If you think about the grinding method and the upper body benefits, it really is a great workout. The rolling action increases flexibility in the wrists, works the triceps and biceps and kick-starts the heart. It also stimulates the nerve endings on the tips of the fingers, which are, in turn, said to get those inner organs purring, just like that Love Me Tender song. It is, without doubt, an holistic experience. And the best part is that you get to eat it, too.

The Balinese-style mortar and pestle is either round and fairly shallow or very deep, like the Thai-style pounder. The former is used to make smooth spice pastes in smaller quantities while the latter is mainly reserved for pounding meat and more serious volumes of spices. Made out of volcanic stone, it is porous and tends to gather flavor with each use. Nowadays, most mortar and pestles are made from a blend of volcanic rock and cement. They don’t grind as smoothly as pure volcanic rock but are still effective in getting the job done. And after many months of hard work and a thousand layers of spices, the thick stone will eventually wear away and split in half. But apart from creating one of the smoothest pastes on the planet, the mortar and pestle also doesn’t generate any heat. That means that all these ground ingredients retain their integrity, the purity of their soul.

If you are able to get hold of a volcanic stone mortar, the first step for sealing it is to place it in a sink of hot water, soaking it until the water becomes cool. If it is a particularly gritty stone, you’ll need to soak it for several days and it may even be necessary to grind coconut or peanuts into it, to add natural oils. After soaking, grind fresh turmeric into the stone and let it dry. Then wash and start grinding.

I enjoy watching the girls at our house cooking and observing the different grinding styles of each person. It’s rather like culinary psychology. Jero, our family cook, has a gentle technique and uses short, sweet strokes, often with one hand held behind her back, to get the job done.

Nyoman, our other cook, is more aggressive in her approach and immerses her whole being into her food with great gusto. When she grinds her spices, she firmly grips the pestle with both hands and charges into the mortar with a deliberate, definite rhythm. There’s an imminent power in each dish and somehow eating her food gives me great strength and confidence, without her bossiness, thank goodness.

If you’re unable to find a volcanic stone mortar and pestle, try experimenting with marble or wooden ones. Or if you are pressed for time, a food processor will do the job. I am the first to admit that I love my food processor dearly. It lives in Australia and I miss it terribly.

Following is a simple peanut sauce recipe to test out your mortar and pestle – or even your food processor.


Peanut sauce

Peanut sauce is one of Indonesia’s most popular condiments.

Varying in degrees of spiciness and sweetness, it is exceedingly simple to make and can be served with snacks or a main course. It also complements meat, vegetables and soybean products. For a successful peanut sauce, the trick is not to reheat it, as it is inclined to curdle.

150 gms. raw, unsalted peanuts

1 tbs. kecap manis

6 cloves garlic, chopped

½ tsp. shrimp paste, roasted

2 small chillies, chopped

¼ – ½ cup water

2 tsp. kencur

salt to taste

2 lime leaves, shredded

1-2 cups oil for frying

1 tbs. palm sugar

¼ medium tomato

1 large red chilli (seeds removed)

2-3 tbs. fried shallots

2 tsp. lime juice (optl.)

Deep-fry the peanuts in the oil in a wok, over medium heat, a handful at a time until just golden brown. (Remember that they keep cooking after they’ve been taken from the wok). Remove the peanuts with a slotted spoon. Grind until fine or place the peanuts in the container of a food processor and blend with the water.

Grind the garlic, large red chilli, small chilli, kencur, shrimp paste and palm sugar, adding the tomato last. Alternatively, place all the ingredients in the container of a food processor and blend to a paste. Mix in the ground peanuts and add the kecap manis, lime fruit, lime leaves and fried shallots.

Check seasonings.

To serve: Garnish with fried shallots and serve with gado-gado or satay.

* As an alternative to frying raw peanuts, you may substitute roasted Beer nuts, such as Nobby’s nuts. Select the ones with the skin on.

Janet De Neefe is the owner of Casa Luna and Indus restaurants, author of Fragrant Rice and founder and director of the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival. She also runs the Casa Luna Cooking School.

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Arts & Entertainment, The Island

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