The Mortar, The Pestle and It’s Place in The Nigerian Kitchen

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While the men returned from the farm, you could hear the sound of the women pounding in the distance “kpom, kpom, kpom!” That was the sound of the pestle against the mortar; milling food items for a family meal.

In Africa(Nigeria), there are two traditional methods of milling food items, i.e the grinding stone and the mortar/pestle. The former is usually fashioned from hard stones, or rocks, including volcanic rocks, most of which contain a dangerous traces of elements such as arsenic, mercuric iodide, etc., which can be fatal, when ingested by humans and animals. To use the grinding stone, one has to kneel or bend forward, holding the upper millstone with both hands and work it forward and backwards in the hollow of the grinding stone. When food items such as tomatoes, are milled on these stones, some of it is equally ground to powder and washed into the food items and consumed by the unsuspecting victims. The consequence is that continuous ingestion and accumulation of these substances in the body, could have been the cause of mysterious illnesses and deaths in many (Nigerian)African families, in the past. In the case of children, in families, that died in particular patterns, at certain ages, (regarded as cases of Abiku, or Ogbanje) it may well have been that these poor children and their beleaguered, unsuspecting parents, only gave up the ghost at those particular ages, in those particular patterns, at a point when their young bodies would have reached their optimal tolerance levels and so, died at those particular ages and in such patterns. Nobody has really researched this phenomenon, to come up with concrete facts and figures, to back up this suspicion. But suffice it to say that those family grinding stones contained dangerous trace elements, for sure and may not be ruled out of the causes of such mysterious deaths and their patterns, in the past. Thus, it makes the mortar and pestle method, the preferred, safer and healthier mode of milling the family’s food, in Nigeria, or indeed, elsewhere.

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Google image of a family using the grinding stone and the mortar

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google image of a grinding stone

 

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Google image of women using the grinding stone

Now that the mortar/pestle has become quite a popular method to mill food in Nigeria, it also came with plenty of significance and myths. For instance, in the place I come from which is South Eastern Nigeria (Igbo speaking people of Nigeria), the mortar and pestle (Known as ‘odo/Ikwe/okwa( where Okwa is the smaller version of the mortar) na’ aka or nwa odo’. Simply meaning the mortar and it’s hand or child) is an integral part of our traditional wedding gifts given to a bride by her family. It is symbolic to mean that she should feed her family and not let them go hungry.

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It is also said that during the Biafran war in Nigeria, little babies were hidden under the mortar for safety and survival (Nkem, from Alor, in Anambra state; Southeast Nigeria)

Someone asked recently; why some men like to buy their wives kitchen appliances as gifts. She mentioned preferring perfumes and I cringed. Not that perfumes aren’t great, but even now as a 21st century woman, I would love a mortar and a pestle for a wedding present; yes I am putting it out there in the universe 🙂

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You know the funny thing about these mortars? They last for literally a life time if well taken care of; which includes washing it with or without soap and turning the mortar upside down to dry. I never really use soap for my mortars except of course I mill something that contains red oil. Basically, think about how you would take care of your cast iron pan and treat your mortar the same way i.e. with some respect!

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Image sent in by Ify. This is her mother’s 41 year old mortar and pestle given to her during her marriage to her husband; Ify’s late father (GOD rest his soul)

The Myths:

I have heard and read a lot of myths about the mortar/pestle; some of which are as follows:

*It is a taboo to eat fufu i.e. Akpu (a white paste made out of fermented cassava) or pounded yam straight from the mortar because your stomach would end up as deep as the mortar; then you could turn out to be a bottomless pit 🙂 (I added my own bit)(Chioma Emezi; from Ala Owere, Imo State)

*It is a taboo to walk across a pestle on the floor as it could cause infertility. (Chioma Emezi; from Ala Owere; Imo State)

*If you are pounding palm fruits and an elder enters the kitchen or compound from where you are pounding, you are expected to stop pounding in the mortar and start  pounding on the floor or ground as a sign of respect. (Chioma Emezi; from Ala Owere, Imo State)

*It is a taboo to pound in the mortar at night as it calls the spirits. (Oghenerunor; from Ughelli North, Delta State)

*When travelling with a mortar and a pestle, you must put a coin in the  mortar to prevent the car from running into an accident (Ruona; from Agbarho. Delta State) (Oghenerunor; from Ughelli North, Delta State)

 

Just like the knife plays a very vital role in the kitchen, the mortar/pestle plays a major and essential role in the Nigerian kitchen. Growing up with my mother, we used the mortar and pestle a lot. I am the youngest of seven children, so I was made to always pound and wash the mortar. I found it quite annoying, but I never complained as it was my chore and very mandatory. It was either I did the chore or I did the chore 🙂

These days there are various types of mortars/pestles and using it requires no real technic. The wooden ones are very much still in existence. And over the years different companies have come up with the marble and ceramic type. There are even those made and treated with granite. So far, I have 3 and the wooden type is still my favorite. The ceramic and wooden types are subject to stains; however, the wooden versions are more porous and tend to retain the flavor of different spices which is both good and bad in the sense that, it flavors the food items and bad when you are able to taste the clove you milled yesterday in the pounded yam you milled today :). The granite version, though treated could also leave it’s particles in your milled food items. As for the ones I have,  I got a wooden type as a parting gift from my friend Binta when she was moving. I got another wooden version from a dear friend Jackie and I got a small one made out of granite (however it is temporary) due to Ajebutter 1 making demands for one her size. She had previously been using the older one given to me by Binta, but after a while she started asking for one for herself.

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Finally, you know I had to whip out a mortar and pestle proverb ehn 🙂

There is a saying which is popular amongst the Igbo speaking people of Nigeria. And the saying goes “Imaghi asu n’ikwe, suo n’ala” and I translate to English “If you do not know how to pound in the mortar, pound on the floor.” (Meaning: “There goes your opportunity, you may use it well or waste it if you like”)

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google image of women pounding in a mortar

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Google image of women pounding in a mortar

Even with the myths, I do love the mortar. Modern times as these has a lot of us using the blender and the food processor, but that mortar is like an Oba (king) in the kitchen. There is a Nigerian saying which goes as thus;”Oba no dey go transfer” Meaning the king never leaves his throne. No matter how much we favor our modern food mills, the mortar and the pestles remain king in the kitchen.

So, what is the mortar and pestle called in your dialect and what are the significance and the myths about the mortar and the pestle in your home or amongst your people.  Make sure to comment below and let us know 🙂

 

 

10 comments

  1. elsieisy says:

    I do love me a mortar any day any time. There are things you would want to cook and cant escape the use. Well, maybe due to the process i was thought.

    And do you know Ugba and Nkwobi prepared in a mortar are way tasty than all these pot things.

    And about the grinding stone, i noticed something.

    When making stew (pepper and tomato sauce) there are unique tastes coming from whatever medium you grind your pepper with. This is no superstition, it is real. The taste you get from using exactly the same ingredient on tomatoes and pepper grinded in a mortar is different from the once in a grinding stone, blender and even the public grinder then down to the manual grinder or even your private blender

    My sauces are top notch and i use different medium of grinding to change the taste i get asides from the tastes that comes from using fish,meat, turkey or whatever used.

    which is why i cringe inside when i find homes that has same taste of sauce for 10uears coming. How na?

    Nma, i love this articles, i might share on my blog soon, if permitted.

  2. Hauwa says:

    It is called Turmi and tabarya in Hausa.hardly u see a Hausa home without turmi and tabarya.we use it to grind our local spices, herbs and tomatoes.tnx for d post

  3. Ayo Lapite says:

    Hey Nma,

    Great article! I’ve never considered or read anywhere about the fact that the stone mortar and pestle might contain dangerous elements. I’m Yoruba, so, the names are “olo” (mortar) & “omo olo” (pestle) for the stone mortar and pestle for grinding and “odo” (mortar) & “omo odo”(pestle) for the deep one used for pounding yam.

    • Nma Okpara says:

      Hi Ayo. Yes, the grinding stone does contain different kinds of stones fused together and the volcanic stones do contain some elements that can be harmful. Thank you for sharing 🙂

  4. grace says:

    Nma.. I loff you too much. It’s gives me pure joy reading your articles. I too am the last of four children and it was always my chore to wash mortar and pound pepper. I too do hope my husband gets me a really good mortar when I get married. You’re doing a great job. God bless your heart.

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