Molcajete: an ancient Mexican tradition

By Susan Page

You can’t get more Mexican than a molcajete! A new collection of novel shapes and designs will be on display at Galería Atotonilco’s Open House, October 26 and 27, noon to 5pm each day.

Galería Atotonilco’s Open House
Featuring decorative molcajete carvings
Sat and Sun, Oct 26 and 27, 5pm
Directions to the gallery in our ad in this issue

The molcajete is the small, three-legged bowl carved out of volcanic rock, now often used to serve guacamole or salsa. The name is derived from the Náhuatl word, mulcazitl. The bowl itself, basically the Mexican version of a mortar and pestle, has been in continuous use for thousands of years by all Mesoamerican cultures, including the Maya and the Aztecs, who used the molcajete to crush and grind spices and to prepare salsas and guacamole. Molcajetes are still in common use for these purposes. Since they retain heat amazingly well, restaurants now sometimes use them to serve a mixture of meats in a kind of stew that remains sizzling hot for as long as 45 minutes.

As is true with most contemporary Mexican folk artists, today’s molcajete carvers have created imaginative innovations within the tradition of volcanic rock carving. Even ancient molcajetes were frequently decorated with the carved head of a pig on the outside edge of the bowl. Now, carvers are making their molcajetes into turtles, cows, birds, pyramids, sunflowers, and other captivating shapes.

Galería Atotonilco owner, Mayer Shacter, recently attended a concurso (competition) for molcajete carvers and was able to purchase a diverse selection of these durable, decorative carvings. They are beautiful, hand-crafted pieces of cultural art that make a great outdoor decoration, are a perfect touch next to a fireplace, or, of course, in any kitchen. And they still work beautifully as serving dishes for guacamole or salsa.

Serious Mexican cooks wouldn’t consider making their salsas in any other container because the molcajete carries over flavors from one preparation to another. It stores within it the essences, oils, smells and flavors of all that has ever been served or made in it. Salsas prepared in a molcajete are known to have a distinctive texture and to carry a subtle difference in flavor from a salsa prepared in a (heaven forbid) blender. Because the volcanic rock is permeable, the more the molcajete is used, the more flavorful is the food it produces through time. Well-cured molcajetes can be precious heirlooms and are often passed down from one generation to the next.

Volcanic rock carvers work hard and require excellent skills. They may have to hike far into the country to locate veins of the appropriate vesicular (pitted) basalt. With great precision, they break the rock into appropriate sizes, load it up on their burros, and bring it back to their studios. Then, using finer and finer chisels, and with great care, they carve each piece out of a single rock. One misplaced blow can destroy hours of work.

Galería Atotonilco, Trip Advisor’s #1 shopping destination in San Miguel de Allende, is a 4,000-square-foot showroom exhibiting a wide variety of folk art including ceramics, wood carvings, lacquer, yarn paintings, paper maché, vintage textiles, historic photographs, and more.

Everyone is invited to the gallery’s Open House on Saturday and Sunday, October 26 and 27, from noon to five each day. The gallery is located five miles north of town on eight beautiful acres in an architecturally interesting building designed by House and House architects. The house and gallery have been featured in several books and magazines and are on the cover of the July 2013, issue of Dom, the leading architectural magazine in Russia! This week, the house is being filmed for an episode of the TV program, Extreme Homes. Directions to the gallery are in the gallery’s ad in this issue of Atención. For more information, visit our website,, or call us at 185-2225.


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