Anyone who does creative work aspires to own and use the best equipment possible. Modern designers and graphic artists want to have the latest and most capable computers and software; painters want the finest-quality canvas, pigments and brushes. Cooks are no different. When they walk into a shop that sells cooking equipment they will inevitably see things that they want, even though they may already have a kitchen full of appliances and utensils at home.
GRATE EXPECTATIONS: Above, ‘kratai’ coconut graters and stone mortars, below.
But some of these implements and devices are more than just tools for cooking. They reveal a great deal about the culinary culture of the era that produced them, the materials and ingredients that were available, and the creative artistry of its cooks. Looking back into the history of Thai cooking there are two pieces of kitchen equipment that would never be missing from any kitchen: a kratai, which is a blade for grating coconut set into a wooden base, and a khrok, or mortar.
These two items reveal much about the food prepared and eaten by people in the countries along the coasts of the Indian Ocean. Kratai-type coconut graters can be found in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. The stone mortars used in Bali are similar to the ones used in Thailand. The main difference is that the ones used in Bali are made from volcanic rock while the Thai ones are granite. The wooden mortars used in the Thai North and Isan are like those in Laos and Cambodia, while Thai ceramic mortars are the same as Lao ones.
The basis of these similarities is their use in countries where the diet includes curry pastes and dipping sauces, and makes heavy use of coconut that must be shredded. There was once also a rotary coconut grinder designed and manufactured in England, a country where coconut cream was not used in daily cooking. The device was made for use in the East.
The kratai was once widely used in Thailand, but less so now because of the advent of electric coconut grinders, which save time and labour. But even though the old kratai are no longer as common in Thai kitchens, they are popular with collectors of old-time cooking equipment both because they are symbols of traditional Thai cuisine and because of the artistry that often went into making them.
In it basic form, a kratai consisted of a long, low, narrow stool, slightly raised in front. The iron blade used for shredding the coconut would be angled upward both for ease of use and to allow more of the meat inside the coconut to be accessible. This structure made its shape resemble a rabbit with its head raised, and gave it its name.
In wealthy households there were often several kratai, because there was plenty of space and many dishes might be prepared at the same time. Craftsmen were hired to fashion artfully made kratai, one of the most popular forms being that of a rabbit, although some were made in the shapes of other kinds of animals.
At the Thaksinkhadee Museum in Songkhla there is a big collection of kratai in a wide variety of forms on display _ there are even some nude female forms _ reflecting the moods and inspirations of the artists.
Kratai were used almost exclusively by women to shred coconut, together with young girls preparing their homemaking skills. Girls were forbidden to sit astride the stools, or to brace the kratai with a foot.
They were told to sit with both legs on the same side of the stool and turn to the side was they worked. This was considered to be the polite posture when using a kratai.
The coconut was split in half before shredding, and there was a technique used when seated on the kratai. The idea was to start at the outside and work inward. The blade was not to pass over the same spot twice because there would be holes causing it to jump and skip.
There was also a method for extracting the coconut cream, still used today. The ground coconut was kneaded together with a little warm water, then squeezed. The cream obtained on the first squeezing was very thick and rich, and called hua kati ("the head of the coconut cream"). More water was then added to the coconut and it was squeezed again to produce thinner coconut milk, and then again to produce a still waterier liquid. These liquids were called hang kati ("the tail of the coconut cream").
With the appearance of electric coconut grinders in fresh markets, the popularity of kratai gradually declined. Vendors who sold coconuts would offer to grind them as a service. The earlier grinders were square wooden boxes with blades inside that ground up the coconut meat fed into them. Nowadays they are made of stainless steel with rotary motors that grind the coconut faster, and there are also compressors to extract the cream. Vendors will now grind the coconut meat, extract the cream and filter it, all in a minute or so.
As for mortars, they are still very much in use in daily life. In the past, most families would use ceramic ones, which were reasonably durable. The pestle would usually be made from toddy palm wood, which was tough and held up well. But there was a problem with ceramic mortars. Strong pounding of the kind used to make curry paste could cause them to shatter.
For this reason, households that could afford it would buy mortars made of granite. The best ones were carved and sold at Ang Sila in Chon Buri. In Bangkok they could be bought at Woeng Nakhon Kasem off Charoen Krung Road (getting to Chon Buri in those days was a major undertaking involving a ferry crossing of the Chao Phraya River at Bang Pakong. If you left Bangkok in the morning you would arrive at Chon Buri in the evening.).
Stone mortars are extremely durable, especially if made from fine-grained granite. These days they are very common, available at most fresh markets for a low price. As a result, they can now be found in homes everywhere. But there might also be different kids of mortars as well, ceramic ones or wooden ones of the kind used to make som tam in Isan. After long use the wooden mortars originally in the North and in Isan were often reborn as planters for ornamental plants.
So both of these kitchen tools, which have been part of Thai households for generations are still with us, although the way in which they are used may have changed. Whether they are used to shred coconut, as decorations, to pound curry paste or grow amaryllis plants, they remain part of the Thai way of life.
About the author
- Writer: Suthon Sukphisit