Living in New York City, 1600 miles away from my home state of Texas, the one thing I crave besides family is authentic Tex-Mex food. There are Mexican restaurants in this big melting pot of a city, but not notable Tex-Mex: that unique blend of Southern barbeque, flour tortillas, breakfast tacos, crawfish, tamales, and more.
To reconnect with the home-cooked food of my childhood, I began to gather family recipes. Only to realize I am missing a few key household items that I took for granted, like a molcajete for grinding spices. When my mom asked what I wanted for Christmas this year I said a molcajete. It was hard to put into words what it would mean to me, but she seemed to understand.
A few weeks before Christmas a heavy package arrived with a neon orange sticker on the box saying From Mexico. I unbox it, and there it was, carefully wrapped in bits of a Mexican newspaper. That weekend I shared the news with my dad on the phone, he said, “Don’t forget to season it.”
Season it? How do I do that?
I did what every other displaced millennial does when they aren’t sure how to do something— change a flat, hang a shelf, or hard boil an egg —I turned to YouTube. After getting lost down a rabbit hole of Mexican cuisine tutorials, I opt for simple white rice and coarse salt already in my pantry. Before starting the seasoning process I call my dad back. He recommends the same ingredients sitting before me: rice and salt. He says this is how my grandmother did it, how her mother did it, and so on. My dad’s final words of advice, “Everything you grind it in will season it a little more, no two molcajetes will be seasoned the same.” It looks like I am on the right path.
I start grinding … and grinding and grinding. I complete at least eight passes of adding rice and salt, grinding to a powder, disposing, and adding more before I start to see progress. The rough outside contrasts with the smoother inside the bowl and soon rice particles begin to fill in the larger holes of both the mortar and pestle. I complete a few more rounds feeling confident that it is finally ready for an official cook test: guacamole.
The first bite tastes like home.
How to Choose Your Molcajete
- Embrace the irregular. Traditional molcajetes are hand carved from a solid piece of volcanic rock, expect asymmetrical legs or slight irregularities.
- Be wary of cement copycats. Some copycats will pour mixed concrete into a mold and attempt to pass off as authentic. Avoid molcajetes that are suspiciously cheap or too light or too black in color.
- Volcanic rocks smell sulfuric. To know if a molcajete is made from real volcanic rock you should be able to smell a light scent of sulfur as you grind.
- Buy from Mexican artisans. I recommend this one or this one made in Mexico of 100% authentic volcanic rock.
How to Season Your Molcajete
- Prepare grind station. Fold a dishtowel on a surface area and place your molcajete on top. This is to ensure the feet of the molcajete don’t damage your surfaces as you grind.
- Add salt and rice. Pour in coarse salt and white rice and begin to grind. Be sure to grind all the way up to the edges of your bowl. Continue until you’ve reached a powder consistency.
- Discard powder. Inspect your powder, does it contain black bits in it? This means the seasoning process is working! And that you still have more grinding to do. Discard powder.
- Repeat. Repeat steps 2-3 until you no longer see black bits in your powder.
- Rinse. Add a splash of warm water and mix around to create a rice paste. This will help fill in the holes and rinse out any remaining rice powder.
What to Make with My Molcajete?
- Blend spices for fresher flavors. Add the molcajete to your regular cooking prep. Consider grinding whole spice seeds instead of buying pre-ground.
- Salsa or guacamole. Research a flavorful salsa or guacamole recipe and grind all ingredients within the molcajete and serve. Or better yet, ask a friend or family member for their favorite recipe.
- Marinades and rubs. Consider using the molcajete to grind spices together for barbeque ribs or for marinating meats.
- Serving dish. Use your molcajete as an authentic centerpiece to serve appetizers or shared plates with family and friends.
Anastasia Garcia is a Mexican-American writer of horror and speculative fiction. Anastasia’s writing is featured in Lunatics Radio Hour, the Nottingham Horror Collective, and Corvid Queen. Originally from Texas, Anastasia now works at Instagram and lives in New York City with her partner and her cats. Follow her writing journey at anastasiawrites.com or on Instagram at @anastasiawrites.