The term "Suribachi" (mortar) refers to cookware that is used to grind food materials into small grains or mash them up into paste. As the word 'suribachijo' (shape of suribachi) shows, it is shaped like an inverted circular cone, which is narrow at one end, has sloping sides, and is round at the other end. It has kushime (radial ridged pattern) inside of the mortar, which makes it possible to grind food materials efficiently requiring a little power. It is used together with a rod-shaped pestle, and food materials are ground by rotating the pestle to the left as if rubbing them against the inside of the Suribachi. In addition, since the word 'Suru' is a word play which refers to the word 'drop money' which is found in the gambling and business world, it is often called Ataribachi (a hit bowl) or Ataribo (a hit stick) for good luck as well. Therefore, the action to grind in Suribachi is sometimes expressed a hit or stroke of luck.
The size of Suribachi is expressed using 'sun' (= 3.03 cm) (or go (a kind of ranking)). Generally, a seven sun Suribachi is for one or two persons, an eight sun is for three or four, and a nine sun is for five to six. It is generally said that a larger Suribachi is easier to use.
In a narrow sense, Suribachi cookware is unique to Japan as mentioned above, but in a broader sense, other cookware which are used for the same purpose in other countries are also called Suribachi in some cases.
The history of Suribachi production
The first Suribachi in history appeared from the middle to the latter part of the Kamakura period, that is, from the end of the thirteenth century to the beginning of the fourteenth century, and was discovered in the kiln of Bizen yaki (Bizen ware) (such as Guibidani gama (kiln) and Kumayama sancho 9-go gama (No.9 kiln at the summit of Mt. kuma)). Since around the sixteenth century, Suribachi began to be produced with an edge belt at the rim and the ridged pattern was also added as if to fill the gap. It is said that 'Bizen Suribachi cannot be broken even if it is thrown,' and it dominated the market with other potteries in the Kansai region. The Suribachi of Bizen has a round shape from the bottom, when viewed from the side, and is almost shaped like a half sphere. In the kiln of Shigaraki yaki (Shigaraki ware), Suribachi with a single ridged pattern in one unit appeared in the Goinoki gama (kiln) at the beginning of the fifteenth century, and Suribachi with four ridged patterns in a single unit appeared in Nagano No.3 kiln and Higashide gama (kiln) from the middle to the latter part of the fifteenth century. In the latter part of the sixteenth century, the model that used seven ridged patterns in a single unit was adopted as if to fill the gap between the ridged patterns. In the Seto-yaki (Seto ware), Suribachi with six ridged patterns in a single unit began to be produced in a kiln from the early to the middle of the fifteenth century (the kiln in the latter style of old Seto style). At the end of the fifteenth century, Suribachi with ten to twelve ridged patterns in a single unit, shaped radially in ten to twelve directions, appeared, and in the sixteenth century when big kilns were used, ridged patterns came to be shaped more closely. When seen from the side, its shape looks as if Mt. Fuji was inverted and its top was destroyed. Additionally, in the Echizen-yaki (Echizen ware) kiln, Suribachi were also produced from at least the Muromachi period, and in the Tanba-yaki (Tanba ware) kiln, Suribachi having one ridged pattern in a single unit appeared from the middle to the latter part of the fourteenth century. Since it was produced using the yakishime (pottery that is fired without any applied glaze) method and was tough, it dominated the markets over to the Kanto region in the early Edo period (the seventeenth centuries). However, in the eighteenth century, Suribachi made in Sakai, which had a semi-spherical shape and that imitated the Suribachi of Bizen, grabbed the majority share in eastern Japan. After that, the Suribachi made in Sakai gradually overwhelm those made in Seto and Mino due to its durability, until the end of the Meiji period. In the Tokoname-yaki (Tokoname ware) kiln, only kneading bowls were produced during the medieval period. In addition, from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century, Suribachi created from soft earthenware called gashitsu doki (earthenware) were produced.
Suribachi is sometimes used to date ruins in archaeology since its rim and number of ridged patterns change greatly according to its usage (a newer Suribachi has more ridged patterns).
Major dishes which use Suribachi
Gomaae (vegetables in a sesame sauce)
Shiraae (tofu and vegetables in a sesame sauce)
Goma-dofu (crushed sesame seeds boiled in water and chilled like tofu)
Deep-fried tofu mixed with thinly sliced vegetables
Hiyajiru (cold miso soup) (a local food of the Miyazaki Prefecture)