The Chinese cleaver, when compared with the slim, pointed knives used in Western kitchens, may appear to be a crude and brutal object. A rectangular slab of metal with an upper edge extending straight into a handle, it’s more often associated with butchery and murder than julienned vegetables. In China, however, such a knife is the indispensable tool in both domestic and professional kitchens, as delicate and dextrous as it is versatile.
The Chinese cleaver is surprisingly thin and light if you’re expecting a butcher’s weapon. Known as a “vegetable knife” (caidao), it’s typically the only knife in a Chinese home kitchen and used for practically everything. A good caidao does almost all the jobs accomplished by a whole set of French chef’s knives, from slicing a clove of garlic to jointing a chicken. It can be used for filleting and boning (I once watched a young chef debone a duck with a cleaver, while wearing a blindfold, leaving the entrails perfectly contained in the naked carcass and the rest of the bird in one piece). Held at both sides with a rocking motion, it can reduce a pile of herbs to minute scatterings. Slicing potatoes or chopping celery is much faster with a Chinese knife than a French one and probably much safer, because you can lean your knuckles against the sheet of metal as you cut, keeping your fingertips away from the blade.
It’s the supplementary uses of the caidao, however, which make it totally addictive. The flat of the blade can be used to smack garlic cloves to loosen their skins or a piece of ginger to unlock its fragrance for a marinade. With the sharp, right-angled heel, you can crack a fishhead to let its flavours permeate a stock. If you turn the knife upside-down, you can use the blunt backbone to pummel meat or fish to a purée (before the advent of blenders, this skill was ubiquitous in Chinese kitchens). Best of all, you can use the broad blade to scoop up pieces of food from a chopping board and transfer them to the wok.
The basic design of the Chinese knife is remarkably consistent, with variations mainly in size and weight. Professional chefs tend to favour broader blades, perhaps 24cm by 12cm, while a domestic knife is more likely to be in the region of 21cm by 9cm. Lighter knives are mainly used for cutting boneless foods, while a midweight knife comes in handy for chopping poultry on the bone. Heavyweight cleavers (kandao), which really are butchers’ knives, are used more in professional than domestic kitchens. Traditional knives are made from carbon steel, most modern ones from stainless; some have wooden or composite handles, others handles moulded from the same piece of metal as the blade.
The simplicity of the design does not imply any lack of sophistication – far from it. In fact, knifework has been unusually important in Chinese cooking since the dawn of history. An ancient Chinese term for the culinary arts was gepeng, “to cut and to cook”. The sage Confucius is said to have rejected food that was improperly cut. Almost all Chinese food is served in pieces small enough to be picked up with chopsticks; knives are confined to the kitchen and never present at table. Cutting is still the first skill of the Chinese chef, and there’s a large vocabulary for different types of slice and sliver. The art of stir-frying, in particular, relies on accurate cutting to ensure that ingredients are evenly cooked. Really accomplished chefs can perform extraordinary feats like cutting a block of tofu into thousands of hairlike strands or transforming a fish fillet into flowery frills – and all with the basic kitchen cleaver. Using a Chinese knife can even be a meditation: in one famous passage of the Daoist classic the Zhuangzi, a description of a chef’s graceful and effortless dismemberment of an ox is used as a metaphor for the art of living.
If you learn to use a caidao, you can dispense with your French chef’s knives, your mezzaluna and your mandoline. The Chinese cook’s knife is majestic in its simplicity and almost impossible to improve. It’s the master of all trades, the king of the kitchen.