Every food culture is challenged to find ways of transforming unpalatable, indigestible foods into nourishing, tasty fare. Grinding and crushing is often part of that transformation process, helping to release nutrients and flavor otherwise locked into grains, seeds, leaves, bark, nuts, roots and tubers. A variety of tools have been developed throughout the world to accomplish this, though nearly all are some type of mortar (bowl) and pestle (stick to rotate in the bowl).
The earliest written reference for such a tool is an Egyptian medical papyrus of herbal preparations dating to circa 1550 BC. Indeed even today a mortar and pestle is often used as a symbol for a pharmacy. In Japan there is archaeological evidence from Yayoi sites (400 B.C.- 400 A.D.) that tools resembling mortars and pestles were used. The suribachi as we know it today with its kushimé (comb-like) grooves, however, came much later in the 17th century.
Many of the dishes we associate with classic Japanese cooking — creamy shira aé tōfu sauce, nutty goma aé sesame sauce, kamaboko fish sausage with its springy-chewy texture, even smooth-textured miso soup — evolved to their current consistency thanks to the groovy design of the suribachi. Traditionally in both home and professional kitchens the suribachi multi-tasked, milling grain to flours, mashing seeds, nuts and beans to paste and transforming fish trim and scrap (after filleting) into sausage — all powered by diligent hands.
It wasn’t until 1948 (Showa 23) that an automated tool was introduced to Japanese kitchens. Toshiba Electric was the first to sell a “mixer” (a “blender” to most Americans) and all the big appliance brands followed quickly thereafter. Today high-powered food processors of all sorts cohabit Japanese kitchens with old-fashioned groovy-grinding suribachi.
Goma-Dofu / 胡麻豆腐
For instruction in preparing Creamy Sesame Pudding — the diligent, classic way OR the modern-convenience way — read my post at KITCHEN CULTURE
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A Taste of Culture
Culinary Arts Program
Setagaya-ku, Tokyo 158-0095, Japan