Food & Drink | Tools of the Japanese Kitchen

Getting in the groove with ‘suribachi’ and ‘surikogi,’ the Japanese mortar and pestle

by Makiko Itoh

Special To The Japan Times

A home kitchen in Japan is typically filled with all kinds of electronic gadgets. Yet there are some food preparation tools that are so useful that they have remained the same, and in steady use, for hundreds of years.

In addition to a set of good sharp knives, such much-loved traditional items may be worth making space for, and what better place to start than with the suribachi and surikogi, the Japanese mortar and pestle, and a collection of fine graters called oroshiki or oroshigane.

A suribachi is a pottery bowl with a glazed exterior and rim and an unglazed interior. What makes suribachi different from other mortars is that the unglazed interior is scored with diagonally spiraling ridges called kushime or kushinome, meaning comb pattern. The ridges not only facilitate the pulverizing of seeds, nuts and so on, but they also extract oils and moisture from food more efficiently than a mortar with a smooth surface.

The surikogi pestle, meanwhile, is always made of hardwood — you should never use metal, stone or other material that may damage the suribachi’s ridges. Surikogi used to be made from the wood of the sansho pepper tree, but nowadays many kinds of hardwoods are used. You can usually get by with just one surikogi, even if you have suribachi in various sizes.

Grinding bowls or mortars were first introduced to Japan from China around the sixth century, although they didn’t develop their characteristic ridges until centuries later. The dense, geometric pattern of ridges that we see in suribachi today developed in the 17th century. Among its most important daily uses was the grinding up of miso, which was not the smooth paste we’re used to today but a fermented mix of beans and grains. The paste was then used to make miso soup, also an invention of the Edo Period (1603-1868).

Nowadays, there is no need to grind miso into a paste, but suribachi and surikogi are still very useful. What makes them superior to electric mixers and grinders is the degree of control they afford — it’s possible to bruise and mash the food in addition to merely pulverizing it, so seeds and nuts ground up in a suribachi can be worked into a sticky paste. Sesame seeds, freshly roasted and ground in a suribachi, are much more fragrant than ready-made paste from a jar, and indeed this is the most common use for suribachi today. A suribachi can also be used to mash and grind soft foods such as tofu for the classic fluffy tofu, vegetable and sesame dish shira-ae, or to grind down fish or chicken for making tender tsukune dumplings.

But the uses of suribachi and surikogi also extend beyond traditional Japanese cuisine. They make quick work of fresh basil leaves, garlic and pine nuts when making a pesto alla Genovese for instance, and are ideal for bruising and mashing the ingredients to release their full flavor. A treat for me is peanut butter made with freshly roasted peanuts, patiently ground up in a suribachi.

Suribachi come in many colors and many feature attractive patterns on the outside, so they’re nice to have on display in your kitchen, too. To stabilize the bowl as you work, put a wrung-out but wet kitchen towel or a rubber mat under it. A little old-fashioned elbow grease is needed, but the results are worth it.

While the suribachi and surikogi are essential in my kitchen, I admit that the handmade metal oroshigane grater pictured is a bit of an indulgence. It’s especially made to quickly create a snowy mountain of grated daikon to serve on grilled fish, meat and more.

Another grater I have in my collection shreds apples for my muesli without spilling a drop of juice, and a favorite of raw fish aficionados is a dedicated wasabi grater. Cheap graters can handle a wide variety of jobs fairly well, but a purpose-made, finely crafted grater makes cooking a joy. You can find myriad graters at Iida-ya in Tokyo’s Kappabashi neighborhood, and Aritsugu in Kyoto makes what many consider to be the ultimate oroshigane.

This is the second in a six-part series exploring traditional and modern equipment connected to Japanese kitchens.