Garlic is one of the most frequently used seasonings in my cooking which also caters to people’s tastes in North China where I come from. For most dishes, simply cutting garlic cloves into small pieces would be enough, but to liberate the garlic’s strong flavor when preparing a dipping sauce, a garlic crusher would be the top choice to make a mash.
The garlic crusher I’m talking about is different from that sold in a US market—a device with a grid of small holes. The one I’m familiar with is a traditional Chinese kitchen utensil composed of two parts: a stone-made or marble-made small bowl with a thick bottom and a small pestle (see picture). Just put some skinned garlic cloves into the bowl and pound with the pestle until they are fully crushed with the garlic juice squeezed out. By adding some salt during the process, the mashed garlic will be more sticky and tasty. Mashed garlic is often used together with vinegar and sesame oil to make the dipping sauce for dumplings or for a hot pot with various other ingredients depending on people’s own taste.
The dipping sauce with mashed garlic is the best match for dumplings. I remember when I was little, my mother often asked me to crush garlic cloves when she made dumplings at home. It was an enjoyable task for a kid like me at that time—“playing with” the pestle while helping with cooking! When I grew up and moved to South China for study and work, I found people there don’t like garlic that much, let alone the mashed garlic with a strong flavor. Many locals don’t even know what a garlic crusher is. At that time, I started to realize that the crusher is actually a symbol that carries the flavor of my hometown where China’s best garlic is grown.
Now in the US, it’s even more difficult to find the utensil. Though sometimes I make dumplings, I’m unable to reproduce the flavor of my hometown without the traditional Chinese garlic crusher. Or, perhaps, it will still be a different taste even though I use the tool, because my most vivid memories relating to the garlic crusher are about having dumplings in family reunions with my parents and close relatives. Perhaps what I miss is not only the flavor of mashed garlic, but also the feeling of being home.