It’s still birthday month, and I’m looking forward to using the present Russ gave me, a new molcajete. This is the third one to come into my life. I’m not sure where the first one is, the second one, a cute little piggy shape, is now Chucha’s dog food dish, and now my third one, ample enough to grind a salsa or guacamole without spills.
Before I use it to make guacamole, it needs to be seasoned to smooth the surface and remove rock grit. According to Diana Kennedy’s book, From my Mexican Kitchen, this is done by three grindings of raw rice, each handful ground to a powder. By the third time, there should be no visible rock bits, and the ground rice should be white, not gray. If you try this, be ready for a work-out, or turn to your strong-armed mate for help as I did.
I really tried to grind the rice myself, but after ten minutes, I didn’t have much to show for my efforts and my hand and wrist were getting tired. I found Russ in the middle of his own project. After a bit of haggling, we agreed that if I made him a cup of espresso, he would grind the rice for me. It took him about three minutes to grind it to a powder, and about five minutes for me to make a cup of espresso. He thought he came out ahead.
He started out grinding on the kitchen table, but it was rocking and rolling under the exertion, so he switched to the kitchen counter for more stability. Then he smelled sulfur. He asked if the stove was on. “No.” I could smell it, too. “Are you sure you aren’t cooking something?” “No, and I haven’t even turned the espresso machine on yet.”
The smell was being given off by the volcanic rock of the molcajete! He held out the tejolote — the stone pestle — for me to smell. The aroma of sulfur was obvious. All the more reason to give it several grindings of rice to work out the ancient aroma.
After each grinding, Mrs. Kennedy says to scrub, rinse and dry the molcajete. I bought an escobetilla for the job. This common Mexican pot scrubber is made of fibers from an agave plant, and its tiny, stick-like ends are perfect for getting ground rice out of the porous surface. After a good scrubbing, the molcajete was put on the patio to dry.
Molcajetes are three-legged bowls carved from a solid piece of black or gray volcanic rock. Their use dates back to pre-Hispanic times, to the Mesoamerican eras of the Mayans and Aztecs. The food processor is an excellent appliance, but it can’t grind pumpkin seeds or almonds to a smooth paste the way a molcajete and tejolote can, as it is really cutting with blades, rather than grinding. My recent efforts of making torta de garbanzo and sikil pak made this shortcoming clear.
If you buy a molcajete, either at a market here in Mexico or a Mexican grocery store north of the border, look for one that is big enough to work without slopping guacamole over the edge. My new one has almost a quart (one liter) capacity. Also look for small holes, not large, in the rock surface. Mrs. Kennedy suggests cleaning it with unscented dish soap. If this product exists in Mexico, I haven’t found it yet, so I used hot water and lots of scrubbing. After three rice grindings, three times of scrubbing and drying, the interior of the molcajete was smooth and clean, with no aroma of sulphur remaining.
When we first moved to Mexico, Russ had the illusion that I was going to pat out our tortillas by hand. He still holds up his hands to me sometimes, imitating the patting motion, hoping I’ll get the message and be a good Mexican esposa. I guess now he thinks I’ll be making all our salsas in the molcajete. I can’t disappoint him again.
- Like so many other words used in Mexican Spanish, the word molcajete is from the Aztec Nahuatl language, mulcazitl being the original.
- A molcajete should be carved out of a single piece of basalt. Cheap ones are made of concrete with bits of basalt added. Often, an animal head will decorate the bowl, pig head motifs being common in central Mexico.
- Molcajetes can be used as a serving dish or heated to a high temperature and then used to cook food.
- Some Mexican cooks think that a molcajete adds a subtle flavor to a salsa or guacamole.