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Molcajetes—Mexican Cooking and Lava Rock Pigs

Molcajetes—Mexican Cooking and Lava Rock Pigs

Have you ever seen those dark grey stone bowls and wonder just where they came from?  Just south of our house, is where!  Cooking with molcajetes is essential in Mexican cooking.

February 3, 2008

One day Omar and I set off looking for lava rock pigs.  You would too, if you knew how indispensable they are in the kitchen.

Molcajetes aren’t always in the shape of pigs, actually.  Most of them are round bowls of various sizes, from tiny to grand buffet, raised on three legs.  They are carved from a solid block of igneous basalt, black and heavy and rough-looking.  As the molcajete-to-be rises to the surface as molten magma, gases inside the stone expand to form bubbles.  The rock cools and looks like black foam, but is as tough and heavy as, well, a rock.  This porous basalt outcrops in several places in Mexico, including just south of our house, in San Lucas Evangelista.  That’s where we headed on a warm Sunday, looking for molcajetes in the shape of pigs.

As folk art, molcajetes are unusual mementoes with a rustic beauty and charm.  As cooking utensils, they are pure magic.

Molcajete with salsa

Molcajete with salsa

Molcajete de pollo--Chicken molcajete

Molcajete de pollo--Chicken molcajete

First, molcajetes are used as a mortar and pestle to make sauces and grind spices.  Each molcajete comes with a tejolote (Nahuatl for ‘doll’) made of the same rough stone, to grind with.  Roasted tomatillos and chile de arbol makes a fabulous, fiery sauce, and chimichuri, full of parsley and cilantro and olive oil and lime, is about the freshest tasting drizzle you can imagine.  They come out perfectly in the molcajete.

We like our guacamole chunky, but when a smoother version is desired the molcajete does an admirable job, too.

We also use molcajetes as sizzling hot serving bowls.  While food is rarely cooked in the molcajete, prepared dishes can be served in a stone bowl that has been heated to a very high temperature over the fire.  The dish “molcajete” is made of chicken, beef, or shrimp in a spicy chile sauce.  It is poured into the molcajete and topped with grilled spring onions and nopales (cactus pads).  All is garnished with sprigs of cilantro and served with avocado and refried beans.  The dish always brings ooohs and aaahs from the crowd as the molcajete, sizzling away on a wooden board, is brought to the table.

The day my folks met Omar we took them to an al fresco restaurant in front of Hospicio Cabañas and ordered molcajetes.  They came from the kitchen, pig-shaped and weighing probably 15 pounds each, much to the folk’s delight.  My step dad insists on his food being hot, and he was just delighted.  Our dinners were still quietly bubbling as we finished them off, a half hour later.

Only two problems—the molcajetes are very heavy and very hot, so the server has to be careful in bringing them to the table and the diner has to watch not to touch the stone or be burnt.   And the weight means that molcajetes are hard to carry back home, if you are only visiting our area.

Like cast iron pans, molcajetes—because of their very irregular surface—become “seasoned.”  They can be cleaned with a stiff brush, but a well-used molcajete takes on a character of it’s own, and departs it’s individual flavor to the food.  The texture of food ground in a molcajete is different from that prepared in a blender.  Such small variations make the difference between eating and eating very well indeed.

The molcajete never wears out, because as the inside of the stone is ground down, it continually opens up new bubbles in the porous rock.  You might think that you would get chips of stone in your food, but you don’t.  Evidently the basalt is so hard that it is ground into a fine dust, in such small quantities over time that it is unnoticeable.   Molcajetes have been used in Mexico for thousands of years, and are passed down from generation to generation.  If you drop one on a hard tile floor, you will be replacing your floor before you replace your molcajete.

Real molcajetes are heavy to ship and labor intensive to make, so fabricated ones made of basalt chips and concrete are available.  We are purists, though, and can’t imagine grinding our food in concrete.  Give us lava rock every time.

Omar and I have a pig-shaped molcajete that’s a good size, and we use it all the time.  So when we heard that they still carve molcajetes in San Lucas, so we set off on a Sunday drive.

We headed up into the mountains behind our house, which form a horseshoe around the little colonial town of Tlajomulco.

After passing the brick kilns we turned east and stopped at a large nursery that sells orchids, ferns, and water lilies.  We asked there where to find molcajetes, and were told they make them in the very next town, San Lucas Evangelista.

San Lucas Evangelista, where molcajetes are made

San Lucas Evangelista, where molcajetes are made

A few minutes later we passed the town park and ancient church, and parked on the cobblestone streets of the tiny village.  Chickens pecked for bugs and dogs lounged in the sun.  Three women were standing on the corner, and we asked them who makes molcajetes.

Instead of answering, they pointed to an ancient man walking up the road with a cane.

“What is his name?”

“Don Emilio.”

Omar and I (and Coco, of course) met Don Emilio in the middle of the street and introduced ourselves, explaining that we came for molcajetes.  He turned around and led us to his house, about a block away and behind a rough gate.  The house abutted the road, but behind it was probably an acre or two of fruit trees, small outbuildings, and a garden.  In a huge Ficus tree was the largest clump of Laelia autumnalis orchids I had ever seen—easily 6 feet across.

Don Emilio was a wonderful host.   He didn’t seem to mind that we had interrupted his afternoon walk, as he pulled piece after piece of sculpture and molcajetes out of a small work shed and set them up in the dusty yard for us to inspect.  He told us that the basalt is local, from the hill behind the town.

“How long have you been carving basalt, Don Emilio?”

Don Emilio, molcajete artist

Don Emilio, molcajete artist

“I started when I was 9.  I am now 82.  All my life.”

Don Emilio walked over to a pile of stone and rolled over a 35-pound chunk of basalt, inspecting it.  He then picked it up and carried it back to his work area as if it weighed less than a bag of sugar.

“I see things in the rock.  That’s how I know what to carve.  The stone tells me.”

Carved basalt

Carved basalt

We picked out a round molcajete about the diameter of a dinner plate, and asked how much it cost.

“Cien pesos.”  About 9 dollars.

Don Emilio turned the carving over in his hands, and motioned for us to come with him.  We walked through his fruit trees to the far side of his property and into the town park.

“I will finish and bless the molcajete, so any food you prepare in it will be good.”

He spent some time with the tejolote, striking the molcajete and smoothing any protrusions.  He then moved his fingers in a circular motion over the molcajete, blessing it.

I tell you, that molcajete makes the best salsa you have ever tasted.

Let us know if you are interested in molcajete recipes!

Dan and Omar

Giving the 'blessing,' a final polish of the stone bowl

Giving the 'blessing,' a final polish of the stone bowl

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5 comments to Molcajetes—Mexican Cooking and Lava Rock Pigs

  • paul menta

    Great stuff as i am heading there to get more than a few for my resturant….can you email with more instructions from Guadalajara? It would be great as i was heading there blond and i saw on google where san lucas evangelista is out side there but looks like a street not a town…so any info would be great!

    Aloha

  • im almost always surfing across the net virtually all of the working day so I choose to read a great deal, which isn’t usually a beneficial factor as nearly all of the internet resources I find are constructed of worthless trash copied from several other websites a thousand times, but I’ll hand it to ya this blog is in actual fact half decent and also has got a bit of unique substance, therefore thanks for smashing the trends of just copying other individual’s blogs and forums :)

  • Bev McMullen

    Hi Dan and Omar

    I would love recipes for the lava rock pots PLEASE!!! Having read your artical recently I had to have a pair so I ordered them and after paying a huge shipping fee, they were delivered yesterday. I can’t wait to use them. We recently ate at a Mexican restaurant that served Lava Rock stew. It was a yummy mixture of prawns, chicken and beef in a spicy tomato based sauce that I think was made from refried beans and ranchero sauce????? Just amazing. But any similar recipes you have will be very welcome.

    From Canada, I hope this finds you both well.

    Best regards
    Bev

  • Hi there, long time lurker here with my first ever comment! My daughter is getting married to her lovely mexican boyfriend soon, and I’m tasked with doing the wedding arrangements! I thought enchiladas would be a good idea, so trying to find a good enchilada recipe. What do you think? Any other suggestions?? Anyway, thanks for your hard work as ever…

  • Jim

    Hello, I much enjoyed reading your article,I had the best meal I ever ate in Mexico it was served in a Molcajetes bowl.. It was with Chicken and was very much like a soup or Stew, the flavors were wonderful and I have been trying to find the recipe for it. I was in Mexico a few years back and I too purchased a Molcajetes bowl it was not a pig nor was it blessed. I can bless it if I could find how to make the dish I ate. In your add you mention “Let us know if you are interested in molcajete recipes!” Well yes I am please send me all that you have I would greatly appreciate it.

    Gracias

    Jim & Elsa

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A sample text widget

Etiam pulvinar consectetur dolor sed malesuada. Ut convallis euismod dolor nec pretium. Nunc ut tristique massa.

Nam sodales mi vitae dolor ullamcorper et vulputate enim accumsan. Morbi orci magna, tincidunt vitae molestie nec, molestie at mi. Nulla nulla lorem, suscipit in posuere in, interdum non magna.