The Mexican Molcajete
Have you ever noticed a large, rocky bowl at Mexican restaurants, grocers, or while traveling to the country? These kitchen tools are traditionally made of volcanic rock and belong on a sturdy shelf: my eight-inch diameter molcajete weighs in at ten pounds (yes, you could use your molcajete to do bicep curls when you’re not mixing up salsa). The molcajete has two parts—the bowl with three feet formed on the bottom for a sturdy base and a pounding tool, called a tejolote, which looks like an oblong rock.
The molcajete dates back to ancient Aztec times. According to some sources the word, mulcazitl, is derived from the Aztec language, Nahautl. There’s some evidence that the molcajete came from an even more ancient kitchen tool, the metate and mano used in the Mesoamerican culture. People could grind dried corn on the flat surface of the metate using the mano. (Looking at the pictures of the two, it’s easy to see the similarities.)
Metate and mano. Photo courtesy of Gourmet Sleuth
In modern kitchens, the appeal of the molcajete is similar to that of the cast iron--the porous surface of the bowl absorbs flavors that then linger in whatever salsa you’re pounding together. And the pounding motion gives the salsa a distinct texture, less uniform and smooth versus those prepared in a food processor.
Yet the molcajete remains a novelty in most kitchens, even my own. We lug it off the shelf occasionally for guacamole and comment on the superior flavor of the molcajete-made sauce. But I’m trying to get in the habit of using it more often. For example, you can use it to grind cumin seeds into powder. And for exceptional salsas there’s nothing better than putting a couple Roma tomatoes, a Serrano pepper, a clove or two of garlic, and cumin seeds in the bowl on the table (you can find step-by-step instructions here for easy molcajete salsa). Then once you begin your meal, take turns with your kids mashing the ingredients in the molcajete into salsa. It takes only minutes so have plenty of chips on hand for dipping.
Seasoning your molcajete
Okay, full confession: seasoning a molcajete takes time and stamina, but you only have to do it once. Promise! The aim of seasoning your molcajete is two-fold. First, you want to create a smooth surface for preparing your foods and second you want to add flavor to the bowl that will then seep into whatever you put in your molcajete.
1. Start by washing your molcajete with warm water. No soap! As with the cast iron you don’t need any suds.
2. Dry the molcajete off as much as possible and then let it air dry overnight.
3. Use a handful of rice in the bowl and pulverize them with the hand tool. Discard.
4. You’ll want to use at least two or three batches of rice. You’ll know the surface has been smoothed when the crushed rice stays white instead of becoming the color of the surface rock.
5. Next, take a teaspoon of salt and cumin seeds and place it in the bowl. Add four cloves of garlic. Use the hand tool to spread these ingredients all over the bowl.
6. Leave the ingredients in the molcajete over night. (I wrap it in a plastic bag or else it gets stinky!) Remove the ingredients; wash the bowl; dry it and then you’re ready to make one-of-a-kind guacamoles and salsas.
2 ripe avocados
1 Roma tomato, halved
3 slices white onion
½ Serrano or jalapeno pepper (optional)
1 clove garlic
½ teaspoon ground or whole cumin
1. Place the garlic, onion, and cumin in the molcajete and pound using the hand tool.
2. Remove the skin and pit from the avocados and place in the molcajete along with the tomato and pepper, if using.
3. Use the hand tool to crush the ingredients together.
4. Add salt to taste.
I often make homemade guacamole to go along with shrimp tacos or tostadas.
Kristen J. Gough is the Global Cuisines & Kids Editor for Wandering
Educators. She shares her family's adventurous food experiences--and recipes--at MyKidsEatSquid.com.
All photos courtesy and copyright Kristen J. Gough, except where noted.