By Mortar and Pestle: Making Spice Blends

Reader Contribution by Bethann Weick
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As day turns to dusk turns to night, the flame of our oil lamp lights the southwest corner of the cabin. Standing at our cookstove-countertop, I’m keeping a steady rhythm in the soft light. Marble on marble, I use the darker hours to pound out flavor thanks to the mortar and pestle. This can be completed as much by feel as by light; all that is needed is a consistent raise and fall of the pestle. As one arm tires, I momentarily break the beat while switching to the opposite hand.

On this particular evening I put my manual blender to work creating a dry curry mix: cardamom, fennel, cumin, cinnamom, cloves, black pepper, mustard seeds, coriander, tumeric, fenugreek (just because it was gifted to us) and a pinch of sugar. Using roughly equal parts, I gradually turn these seeds and pods into a powder. The smell of spices slowly pervades the air – Ryan notes it, as these are some of his favorite flavors.

Within 20 minutes, a half-pint jar is filled and capped, set atop the highest kitchen shelf. I rinse the mortar as well as the pestle, then begin peeling garlic stored from this summer’s harvest. Once again the pestle beats into the mortar in a steady beat, as this time I mash these pungent cloves. Another wide-mouth ball jar is filled with the spicy garlic pieces, then mixed with oil, salt, and dried hot pepper. A spicy variation of aioli is set to rest beside the curry mix.

In less than an hour, more than a week’s worth of flavors are created from dried ingredients. It is an interesting perception of time. Approximately 20 minutes per project – it is a remarkably short period. Yet, it can feel long when each second is put towards the manual creation of an edible good. My arm tires, or my hand wearies with the force of the pestle. While not hard work, it requires steady effort. A lag in attention or energy, however, only means that the task takes longer to complete. Time certainly means something different when the energy of each moment is self-created and directed.

In many ways the spice blends and garlic oil that we make in this way are a gift to each other. It is certainly a gift of time – hand production of anything takes time, and food is no exception. There is something about creating goods by hand for the enjoyment of another: it is a gift of care and of intention. When it comes to these foods, the component pieces comprise a final product greater than its parts – a gift of palate pleasure, and of richly-flavored meals. 

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