This month we are taking a closer look at our true favorite tools — the ones that have earned places in our own kitchens. Two weeks ago our team shared their favorite pepper mills, and last week we showed you our favorite pots and pans. This week? We're talking knives. It's very hard for me to choose a favorite knife out of my drawer; only hardworking knives earn a place there. But this one, the Chinese cleaver, is currently the one I reach for the most, and here's why.
I bought this knife several years ago in a San Francisco kitchenwares shop similar to Asian shops found in cities all over the country. I wanted a cleaver to round out my knife drawer; I had a vague sense that it might be nice for cutting up chickens and such. I purchased a very inexpensive cleaver (not too much of a risk) and proceeded to use it twice and then leave it neglected in the drawer. It felt a little too heavy, and too unwieldy; I hesitated before picking it up, and it was in imminent danger of being purged in a kitchen cure, when, suddenly and unexpectedly, I fell in love with it.
What changed? Well, I read Fuschia Dunlop's wonderful book, Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China ($11.41, Amazon). She describes the process of learning to cook in the Sichuan capital of Chengdu as the first Westerner to take real cooking classes at a professional cooking school in China. Knife skills are paramount, she learned, and they are the measure of a Chinese cook's powers. In a cuisine where most food is eaten with chopsticks and needs to be bite-sized, the dozens of precise cuts are extremely important. The interesting thing, however, is that a Chinese cook does not have an arsenal of knives for boning, dicing, slicing, and julienning. Everything is done with the simple, clumsy-looking cleaver.
Dunlop describes how the broad blade can do rough cutting, and the tip can be used for more delicate work. She tells the story of learning how to relax and let her knife become an extension of her shoulder and arm. Her training with the cleaver became the most important part of her cooking school experience, and she learned to love its vast usefulness.
I love my regular chef's knife, but after reading Dunlop's book I decided to put it aside for a week and use the cleaver instead. To my surprise, I found that I quickly loved its weight and its heft, and also appreciated its wide, flat blade. It taught me to look at many ingredients differently. I couldn't use the rock and chop movement to mince garlic, but the huge blade of the cleaver minced it so much more effectively. The flat blade also is the ideal tool to mince herbs; I reach for it every time I need to break down a pile of rosemary.
I have worked on some of the cuts that Dunlop demonstrates in her book, and I am learning how holding the knife in different ways can give me a very different sort of control. When chopping garlic, for instance, I choke up hard on the knife blade, gripping the blade between my fingers. It gives great control and speed, and I actually feel more in control with the huge, seemingly unwieldy cleaver than I do with my lighter chef's knife.
I am still learning how to use my cleaver well, and eventually I may upgrade to a slightly more expensive model. The inexpensive carbon steel cleaver I bought holds a very sharp edge, although it does require a bit more care. It will rust if not wiped down promptly after washing. But I do expect it to last a very long time. So for now this $7 is knife is doing everything I want in the kitchen. I hardly reach for my chef's knife these days; the weight of the cleaver and its carbon steel are doing it all for me.
• Find it: Carbon Steel Cleaver, #3 - $6.95 at The Wok Shop
Do you use a Chinese cleaver? What do you think of it?
(Image: Faith Durand)