There is no better souvenir for Puerto Rico than the Pilon (also known as a mortar and pestle). The Pilon has a rich and long history and has been a very important kitchen tool throughout it’s history.
The pilón was first used by the Taíno Indians. Early visitors such as Fray Iñigo Abbad and Fernández de Oviedo mention having seen the Indians use giant size vases to mash different things. The ancient pilones were much like the pilones of today – the same shape but quite rustic and waist high. Taínos would place one foot on the base to prevent it from tipping over when hit with the giant macetas. Taínos used large hollowed out tree trunks to form waist-tall pilones. The hole was generally approximately 25 inches in diameter, but frequently varied in size. Some were small hand-held pilones, but they were still larger than the ones we use today. The hole for the pilón was burned out and carved using simple rustic tools. Giant macetas were carved out of trees also. The final product depended on the talents of the carver. Some were very rustic, but most were just plain and practical. Some were well-finished, smooth, and shiny on the outside; some were pieces of art with elaborate carvings. Taínos used the pilón and maceta to mash corn, spices, medicinal herbs and other things. Ingredients to make body paint were also processed in a pilón.
The Pilón is still useful today in the modern Puerto Rican kitchen. It is important to use the pestle (or maceta) in a crushing motion, not grinding.
The Puerto Rican Pilón is most often made of wood from the Caoba or Guayacán trees, native hardwoods to the island. These woods offer a fine finish and are very durable, full of veins and fibers. They are not likely to crack over time. A good Pilón should have a polished wood and be sealed almost to a lacquer finish.
To cure a new pilón, soak a towel in corn or vegetable oil and apply to all the pilón. Let the oil absorb for at least 24 hours. Remember that the pilon absorbs the flavors of the ingredients you use over time. This added flavor over time will add an extra distinction to your cooking’s flavor profile.
Uses of the Puerto Rican Pilon:
It is an important tool used to prepare spices mixes and condiments. It also used to grind and crush garlic, plantains, corn and coffee. It is perfect for grinding fresh herbs into an herbal paste, particularly Puerto Rican sofrito. Click here for Recipe.
The key tool needed to make Mofongo, a signature Puerto Rican dish of mashed seasoned plantains stuffed with your choice of meat. The Pilon is used to not only create the mashed plantains, but as the form used to make the presentations. Recently, many restaurants have begun serving the Mofongo in the Pilon. This gives a rustic, authentic presentation to the didh, and is really lovely. For instruction on how to make mofongo, and use the pilon, click here.
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