Echoes from the Grinding Stone
I was 12 when I first visited my maternal grandmother’s home in the coastal village of Varca, Goa. The sloping red-tiled roof, the coconut tree fronds framing a blue sky, the cream-colored walls of the old villa — I took it all in as I circled the house to the back door that led to the kitchen. The next thing I knew, I was face down on the floor.
This was my first introduction to the large stone bowl with a knobbly round baton in the middle of the kitchen floor. It sat like a squat sentinel — on guard for centuries. My mother bent down to gently touch the stony surface, the sides of which had been rounded by years of use, and referred to her own grandmother. “This is a rogddo,” she said. “My avó used this to grind spices.”
Talk about stumbling on an artifact, literally. The rogddo looked more like a bird bath than a kitchen tool. We entered the house through the kitchen, opened creaky cupboards, lifted the sheets off furniture, found delicate ornate crockery sets, a cellar filled with empty garrafãos that had once held wine and vinegar. Our ancestors, dressed in their Sunday best, looked back at us from cloudy photo frames in the hallway.
I went back to the grinding stone to get a closer look. It was a large granite stone with a deep hollow in the center. In Cozinha De Goa: History and Tradition of Goan Food, writer Fatima da Silva Gracias, explains the use of the rogddo: “It was used for grinding coconut, rice, and spices. The ingredients were placed in the dug-out hollow and ground by a stone pestle that was rotated in circular motions, clockwise and anticlockwise,” as friction pulverized the mix.
Since the moment I first entered her house, I have tried to imagine my great-grandmother, the matriarch of a large household, spending time near the stone. The rogddo must have heard her talk, sing, and laugh. It was a given for women of her time, to spend most of their days in the kitchen, overseeing the needs of a large family. The kitchen walls and tools heard it all.
Songs of the Grinding Stone
In her book, Grinding Stories: Songs of Goa, heritage activist and author Heta Pandit writes about the Goan oral tradition of oviyos, songs sung by women over the grinding stone. This essential kitchen tool was often a young bride’s best friend in her new home. She notes, “Filling the grinding stone cavity with words and emotions, the young wife did what she did best, grind and express her feelings in verse and songs.” As they sang, the stone doubled as a musical instrument. It provided the gravelly hum, a percussion of sorts, to the meditative chant of their songs.
Mãe, my grandmother, would tell me stories about how she learned her way around the kitchen, looking out for the season’s best produce and stocking up on dried fish. She would sun-dry spices like coriander seeds, peppercorns, and cumin during peak summer so they stayed fresh through the torrential monsoon months that followed. To replicate the flavors of her favorite koddi (curry) for us in her city home, she used a different grindstone, a fatorn. This flat, wide stone, paired with a cylinder of graphite, sat on the kitchen counter. It looked like a broad black tongue.
I would watch her arrange spices — a small heap of pepper, coriander seeds, cumin, and broken red chiles — and hold the stone rolling pin horizontally over the spices. She’d tap them gently at first, and then, with firm motions, holding the pin on both ends, she’d scrape them on the stone surface. She would pause, flick her wrists, scoop the mirem (curry paste) with her fingers, marking “spice roads” on the jet-black granite. She would etch my name sometimes, when I stood next to her, eye-level to the grinding stone, enveloped in the heady scent of freshly crushed spices. Next, she would sprinkle a few drops of water over the spices and start all over again. Her arms kept moving, back and forth, with a rowing movement like the fishermen taking the boats out to sea at Varca.
The crushing action — the nonstop motion of it — always had a calming effect. I was mesmerized by the sound, the change in the color and texture of the ingredients. It was a magic trick wherein the sleight of hand was forceful yet elegant.
Mãe always had a quiet smile on her face, her gold bangles clinking when she ground her trademark curry paste. “It was said, the sorsodo (tinkling) of glass bangles worn by women while grinding made the food taste better,” writes Gracias. For me, the sound always reminds me of Mãe’s strength, and her love for us, as she meticulously ground the spices to remind us of where we came from.
A Global Tool
Like my grandmother, cooks around the world prefer grinding stones to find “authentic” flavor and to make easy work of grains or spices. The pressing action gives a silken texture to a spice paste, suffused with the aromatics from the pummeled spices. In comparison, in an electric grinder the spices are not completely broken down; they are just cut down in size. Their flavor is not maximized. On a grinding stone, the cellular structures of the spices are bruised thoroughly, between the rock surface and the baton, to release peak flavor.
So when a Mexican abuela excitedly tells you how the perfect mole comes together on a three-legged molcajete (made from porous volcanic rock), she is talking about amplifying flavor through care and patience. This familial warmth of the grindstone is often found in older Indian households.
In South India, families use the aattukkal, a round mortar with a hollow middle in which another pointed-end pestle is wedged, to transform rice or lentils as a wet batter, ideally for making dosas. And there’s the ammikkal, like the one my grandmother used, a flat rectangular piece of stone used to powder dry spices to make chutneys and masalas. In Bengal, it is called a shil-nora and is often used to make mustard seed spice pastes. Most Asian cuisines use a form of a heavy mortar and pestle or a flat grinding stone. Consider the Malaysian-Chinese batu giling, or the tall and heavy krok-saak from Thailand, which is used to make som tam, the popular raw papaya salad.
The grinding stone in all its varied forms stands by time-tested recipes across the world. A reminder that when we grind, pound, and take time to cook for our families, it echoes with love from our ancestors. I don’t remember the last meal Mãe cooked for us. Sometimes I’m afraid I’ve forgotten the sound of her voice. But every time I have my first bite of xit-koddi (curry rice) made from stone ground mirem, I can hear her bangles tinkling.
- Improve the flavor of food
- Boost the nutritional value of spices
- Strengthen family bonds