Haitian mortar and pestle rhythm
“taap, taaap, tap….tap…taaaap…”
The staccato rhythm of a Haitian mortar and pestle is music to my ears. Maybe it’s because it mimics the sound of a drum. Or perhaps it’s because, in its own way, it announces that a homemade Haitian meal is being prepped. Whatever the reason, I thoroughly enjoy the beat of a pestle. Its rhythm is something I grew up with and love.
Indeed, a pilon, as we call our local wooden mortar and pestle is an essential tool in Haitian kitchens.
It is at the core of our local cuisine. Most, if not every, Haitian cook relies on this unique kitchen tool. It is key in reducing spices into our famous epis, the marinade that is the base of every savory Haitian dish. Our cooks take this manual and often tedious labor very seriously. I say tedious because I myself have yet to master the art of using the pilon. For starters I cannot beat it like our cooks do. No matter how hard I try, I cannot make it sing the melody that was music to my ears throughout my childhood. Further, crushing garlic cloves, whole peppercorn or rock salt with this tool is the work of the experts. You have to know just the right rhythm for them not to jump out of the pestle while you attempt to crush them with the mortar.
Now, you’re probably wondering why we care about using this old somewhat archaic kitchen tool when there are so many modern options available. Don’t get me wrong, a food processor could in fact get the work done in no time without the hassle. Yet, I cannot fully agree with its use. It simply doesn’t grind the spices the same way our pilon does. Without a pilon, our Haitian food simply isn’t the same. I don’t think I would exaggerate if I said that without a wooden mortar and pestle, our dishes lack the “gou lakay;” the authentic taste of home. I felt it myself when I lived abroad and didn’t have one at hand. Back then, I pureed my seasoning in a blender. It most definitely got the job done but I was never able to fully replicate the taste of home.
Haitian food seasoned with a mixture of spices smashed in a wooden mortar just has an extra oomph.
Plus, the smell emanating from a pestle is like no other. The aroma resulting from the mixture of smashed garlic, chives, parsley, bell pepper, salt, pepper and thyme – main spices used in our cuisine – can fill an entire house. I am a firm believer that the true taste of our Haitian cuisine comes both from the way the ingredients are crushed and the many various aromas that permeate the wooden pestle over time.
So, to those of you wanting an authentic taste of our cuisine, I say this, invest in a mortar and pestle. But not just any. You must get a wooden one. Also learn to get used to its staccato rhythm, which will only be interrupted by your own fatigue.
I first published this article on April 9, 2014. The 2020 update includes text revisions and new pictures.