Empty Mortar, Sagging Boobs, and How a Clean Heart Aids Fermentation

Some antiquated Thai superstitions would have been amusing had they not kept people from learning things

The Thai saying mai chuea ya lop lu (ไม่เชื่ออย่าลบหลู่), which translates to “(it’s fine if you) don’t believe; (just) don’t be disrespectful,” is used by many—most often in the context of spiritual, metaphysical, or superstitious matters—as a catchall response to inquiries about their beliefs. When someone says it to you, they mean: I choose to believe what I believe. And although the object of my belief may not be visible or comprehensible to either one of us, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. In all cases, a warning is subtly implied: When offended, this thing could cause bad things to happen to you (and maybe to me, too, since I’m involved in this conversation with you, so if I were you, I would, you know, shut up).

Just as many people live by a new saying, mai chuea tong lop lu (ไม่เชื่อต้องลบหลู่). This one is harder to translate in a way that reflects its true meaning and captures all of its nuances, so I’ll explain it as follows: Since I find this belief to be indefensible, ridiculous, oppressive, and instrumental in keeping people in intellectual bondage, I see it as my duty to challenge and dismantle it. That’s how I understand it—at least that’s what I mean when I say it.

While I’m more open to spiritual and metaphysical things, when it comes to antiquated superstitions in the Thai culture, especially food- and cooking-related superstitions, I’m 100% in the mai chuea tong lop lu camp. There are so many of these superstitions: Do not shake off the rice grains that cling to a spoon by banging the spoon on the rim of the rice pot1, or you will be born with a cleft lip in the next life. Do not eat lying down, or you will come back as a snake in the next life. The list goes on.

I used to think of them as benign or even funny. These days, I simply see them as a lazy, not-even-remotely-creative way to use fear to manipulate people. It’s particularly distressing when they’re used by those who are in a position to educate others—those who should know better.

In seventh grade, during the home economics class where we learned how to use a mortar, our teacher noticed a friend of mine playing around, hitting the empty bowl of a granite mortar with the granite pestle that came with it.

“Yeah, you keep doing that, and your boobs will sag prematurely,” she said to my friend in front of the whole class, miming for effect. The teacher wasn’t joking. You could tell she was annoyed. My friend’s face turned pale; she put the pestle down instantly, humiliated. While some of my classmates laughed, some of us, including me, were confused. It wasn’t until my mom explained it to me later that day that I learned this was a common superstition meant to deter young girls or young women from treating a mortar as a toy.

What our teacher could have said is that slamming a granite pestle into an empty granite mortar creates a very annoying sound. She could have said that forcefully striking one hunk of stone against another with nothing between the two to soften the blow would likely cause damage to one or both of them. She could have told us that the mortar and pestle set is the most important tool in the traditional Thai kitchen and deserves reverence and care. But she didn’t. Maybe she actually believed what she said. What’s more likely is that she presumptuously decided we wouldn’t understand or remember it, so she used superstitious fear to influence our belief and behavior. Perhaps she questioned or challenged the adult who first said it to her but was given a dismissive mai chuea ya lop lu. And it must have worked on her. Why else would she have thought it would work on her young students?

It’s interesting that all of the kitchen-related superstitions apply only to women and either their anatomy or sexuality. This makes sense. After all, in the old days, a typical woman was not expected to be anything more than a wife and therefore a cook (and to some extent the property of her husband). Therefore, it was important to train her to know her way around the kitchen and manage the household. This increases a woman’s ability to keep her husband happy (or to keep him—period) and ensures not only a place for her to live but also a means for living.

Since I find this belief to be indefensible, ridiculous, oppressive, and instrumental in keeping people in intellectual bondage, I see it as my duty to challenge and dismantle it.

So, during her apprentice years, she needs to pay attention. Every little thing matters, after all—even the sound and rhythm of her pounding things in the mortar. A matchmaker or the mother of a young man in the same village who was looking for a potential mate could show up unannounced any time to eavesdrop on the sound of her pestle. A broken, uneven, start-and-stop rhythm says that she’s sloppy and inattentive in the kitchen—not good wife material. A steady and even rhythm from start to finish says she’s determined, skilled, attentive, and worthy of marriage.

And no messing around with the mortar. With already so many hurdles to overcome, why add sagging boobs to the mix? No horsing around with a knife either, especially after sunset (in the pre-electricity days) because—as the adults would say to her—there’s a type of ghost, phi phlak (pushing ghost), whose sole purpose in life2 is to lie in wait until someone uses a sharp object in a dark kitchen so it can—purely for its own entertainment—jump out, push them off balance, and cause them to cut themselves.

No singing in the kitchen either. The adults could have told the girl that any kind of distraction in the kitchen could result in accidents or injuries. But they figured that wouldn’t scare her as much as an old superstition that says singing in the kitchen would result in her marrying a much, much older man. The implication is not that the husband would be an old, wealthy man who dies shortly after marriage, leaving her financially secure for the rest of her life; it’s more like that, due to her husband’s advanced age, the young wife’s life would be all about geriatric care with little hope for marital fulfillment in one key aspect. 

As much as I’d like to think that we as a society have left these antiquated beliefs in the past, my experience has proven otherwise.

Science or good old common sense almost always lies behind superstitions like these. Some people either don’t realize that, or they intentionally ignore it.

A few years ago, I was invited to observe a cooking demonstration in Bangkok where the instructor told his students to remove the lid right after taking a pot of curry off the heat. “You don’t want to let the curry cool down with the lid on,” he said. “There are many reasons, but people in the old days would say the condensation forming on the underside of the lid is like a spirit’s tears. If it falls back into the pot, it will spoil the curry.” First of all, I’d never heard of that superstition before. Second of all, what kind of spirit lives in a curry pot? Lastly, what kind of madness is this?

I don’t know if he knew anything about the so-called “danger zone.” One of the first things they teach in food safety courses is to cool down hot foods as quickly as possible. In the case of the hot curry, keeping the lid on would prolong the danger zone and cause the curry to spoil. Most commercial kitchens have a blast freezer just for this purpose; it rapidly brings down the temperature of hot foodstuffs, thereby preventing spoilage. If the instructor knew about the danger zone, it was irresponsible of him to spout that kind of nonsense when he could have explained the science to his students. And if he didn’t know about this one basic thing about food handling, he had no business calling himself a “food professional.”

The “many reasons” part of what that instructor said convinced me that he was well aware of this. So, if any spirit cries, it would be because that instructor had a chance to educate his students but chose not to.

I don’t believe in this spirit’s tears nonsense, just as I don’t believe in the sagging boob nonsense. And I think this is a perfect situation where everyone should say mai chuea tong lop lu—I don’t believe it; therefore, I will defy it.

Science or good old common sense almost always lies behind superstitions like these. Some people either don’t realize that, or they intentionally ignore it. I’m still not sure which applies to my seventh-grade home ec teacher.

My guess is it’s the former because at some point after the mortar incident, as our class was learning how to make sweet fermented rice (khao mak), I discovered mine was spoiled with green mold covering the surface. Instead of giving me a scientific explanation of what went wrong and how to keep it from happening again, she looked at me and said with a straight face, “You know what people in the old days said? Khao mak requires a clean heart on the part of the maker to ferment successfully. You could be doing everything right and yet fail. You need to work on your heart.”

Obviously, I do need to work on developing a clean heart because, years later, I’m still fuming about this.

1

Back in the old days, this would have been a clay pot which chips or breaks easily.

2

Death?