Other than a knife and chopping block, this basalt stone mortar and pestle is the single most important tool of the Indonesian kitchen. The mortar, called cobek in Indonesian and penyan tokan in Balinese, is wide, shallow, and heavy, with a rough surface that makes quick work of reducing ingredients to a paste. Balinese call the pestle anak, which also means 'child'. The anak is short and right-angled with a flattish round base of sizeable diameter.
Most other mortar and pestle dictate a lot of pounding. Think of the hollow 'tok-tok' sound that rises from the mortar of a Thai somtam vendor. A penyan tokan, by contrast, is all about grinding: placing your feet flat on the floor, standing a bit back from the counter, weight on the right (or left, if you're a lefty) arm, and gently rocking back and forth as you move the anak away from your body to the front of the mortar, bring it around the rim to gather ingredients to its center, and then push it forward again. Though I favor mortar and pestle for many preparations I generally don't enjoy it. Pounding is hard and tedious, and it shakes the kitchen counters. The noise sends my cats up the wall and drives the dogs to distraction.
Scraping an anak across the surface of a penyan tokan, on the other hand, is richly satisfying. Garlic cloves, shallots, fingers of turmeric, chilies, lemongrass stalks, and even whole nutmeg give way effortlessly under the pressure of an anak. Back and forth and around, back and forth and around - it's almost hypnotizing.
Penyan tokan and anak are not confined to the home kitchen. They're useful tools at market and street stalls as well. In Sumatran markets whole sections are populated by (usually female) chili grinders, and they're not using machines, just heavy-duty mortar and pestle like this one (or larger, rectangular models) to reduce chilies to mush. At Bali's Sererit Market I watched my sirat (rice pancake) vendor prepare serving after serving of pecelan (vegetable salad with a dressing that might, according to the customer's taste, include peanuts, chilies, and shallots) using a penyan tokan. Putting anak to the mortar's stone surface, she pulled an order together in a minute and half flat.
From behind a table in the open alley downstairs this vendor made pecelan dressed with a more complex sauce, consisting of pre-made bumbu (spice paste - look for the half-covered white pot in the second photo) ground with chopped peanuts, chilies, kecap manis, and kalamansi juice.
The salad included pressed rice cakes, cucumber, bean sprouts, and blanched snake beans. After mixing the pecelan she scooped it onto nature's disposable dinnerware (a banana leaf) and sprinkled it with crunchy deep-fried peanuts and soy beans.
The result was an intense, lively collage of the flavors I've come to associate with Balinese cooking, especially turmeric, nutmeg, and galangal - and, as per our request, plenty of chili heat. It left our lips tingling and our bellies wishing for more.
When we returned from Bali last month I decided to reintroduce to my kitchen the penyan tokan and its 'child' that I bought in Bali about five years ago. Watching those market ladies whip up fantastic dishes in a matter of minutes inspired me to make use of these tools I'd shamefully left to languish in the cupboard. I seasoned the stone by grinding wet rice, garlic, turmeric, and chilies, letting the paste almost dry on the mortar and pestle, and then washing (with water only) and repeating. After just a few days the stone surface was sealed and ready for a test drive.
Last night I made a brilliant pecelan with the simplest dressing of peanuts, kecap manis, chilies, shallots, and kalamansi juice, thinned with a little water. This light salad is about as far from the thick, gloppy, overly sweet gado-gado served in many a Stateside Indonesian restaurant as you can get. Best of all, with a mortar and pestle like this (or a mini-chopper) the dressing literally takes 3 minutes to make. The only other labor involved is chopping and blanching the vegetables and steaming some rice to serve alongside.
Next week: a more complex pecelan with a dressing that incorporates some of that bumbu (spice paste).
Pecelan (Balinese Vegetable Salad With Peanut and Chili Dressing)
Use a stone mortar and pestle to make the dressing (Indonesian or Malaysian, or a Mexican molcajete), or chop the ingredients finely and finish in a Thai ceramic mortar, or do it all in blender (though you may have to add water to get the ingredients to blend).
I've deliberately left amounts (other than peanuts) out, because this dressing is all about personal taste. I think, in fact, that it's impossible to screw this dressing up, because you can always counter an off taste with more of the other ingredients. Want more salt? Up the kecap manis. Like a lot of sour (though this should not be Thai sweet-sour)? More lime juice. If you don't have kecap manis (Indonesian sweet soy sauce) use regular soy and pound in some palm sugar or brown sugar or maple sugar. You could also add a garlic clove and/or some lemongrass, or leave out the chilies altogether if you don't like hot. You could also thin with coconut milk instead of water, for a richer dressing.
You can use as few as one vegetable here or as many as you have time to chop and blanch. Replace the tofu with tempeh or pressed rice cakes. Or leave the protein out altogether.
This sauce made with a handful of peanuts should dress enough salad for two big eaters. Great eaten with steamed rice or barbecued fish.
A big handful of roasted, unsalted peanuts (I used peanuts roasted in the shell and left the skins on - not a problem)
Fiery small chilies (optional)
Kecap manis (or soy sauce + dark brown sugar or palm sugar or maple sugar)
A couple shallots
Kalamansi or limes
If you're using a stone mortar then everything can be left whole. Start by grinding the peanuts, then add shallots and chilies. Dribble in some kecap manis and just a squeeze of kalamansi or lime juice. Taste for seasoning and adjust to your liking BEFORE adding enough water to thin the dressing somewhat. Remember that some of your salad ingredients will probably have water on them from blanching/washing, so don't thin the dressing too much.
If you're using a blender first chop the ingredients as finely as possible, then blend using a dribble of kecap manis, some lime juice, and water. Taste for salt, sour, heat, and add ingredients accordlingly.
Amounts are malleable but - as a general guide, if you're including all the vegetables, you might start with 2 handfuls of soy beans, 4 snake beans, half a small cabbage, and a small bunch of sturdy greens.
1 block firm tofu, cut in half horizontally, wrapped in a kitchen towel, and placed under a cookie sheet or other pan weighted with cans, and left for about an hour
snake beans or green beans
green round cabbage
A sturdy green, such as daun ubi (cassava leaves), the leaves of large bok choy, chard, kale, etc. You could also use spinach
a long (English) cucumber or several pickling cucumbers
a handful of raw peanuts and/or soy beans
For serving (optional): kalamansi halves or lime wedges and cilantro leaves
- Cut the tofu into small squares. Slice the snake beans into small pieces. Shred the cabbage (not too thinly).
- Blanch the bean sprouts (quickly - they should still be crunchy), greens, snake beans, and cabbage and drain. When the greens are cool squeeze them dry and chop, then shake the leaves to separate them. When all the vegetables are well-drained (squeeze lightly between kitchen or paper towels if necessary) place them in a mixing bowl.
- Split the cucumber(s) lengthwise and remove the seeds with a spoon. Cut them into small wedges and add to the bowl.
- Heat about a quarter inch of oil in a small pan over medium high heat. Add the peanuts and/or soy beans and fry until browned and crunchy. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towel.
- Add the dressing to the salad and mix carefully - try not to break up the tofu squares. Spoon onto a plate and top with the peanuts/soy beans and cilantro leaves, if using. Serve with lime wedges or kalamansi halves (if using).