In My Life in France, Julia Child describes falling for a massive marble mortar and pestle "about the size and weight of a baptismal font." Her dutiful husband, Paul, staggered with it through a Parisian market to their car, which "positively slumped and wheezed." I don't have room for a mega-mortar, and my husband has a bad back, but I've happily settled for the diminutive Japanese suribachi. This glazed earthenware bowl has sharp ridges on the inside, which make it ideal for grinding sesame seeds or small amounts of herbs, as well as making pastes. The accompanying pestle, called a surikogi, is made of wood.
Originally from southern China, the suribachi has been used in Japan since the 11th century. To learn more, visit GourmetSleuth.com, which sells some beautiful 7-inch bowls; I use a smaller, very inexpensive 5½-inch suribachi from Helen's Asian Kitchen (available on Amazon). The suribachi is quite versatile, though for dishes like pesto, you're better off with a big stone mortar like Julia's—well, maybe not that big. See SAVEUR's Mortar and Pesto for a more modest-sized suggestion.