Chinese cooks must laugh at us with our drawers full of paring knives, chef knives, fillet knives, carving knives, and every other knife for whatever kitchen task we might encounter. Why? They make do with only one: the cleaver.
The Chinese cleaver certainly resembles the massive, bone-splitting cleavers of Western butchers (and, we might add, horror movie villains), but it's actually a much more versatile tool. In her book Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China, Fuchsia Dunlop explains,
"The Chinese cleaver is not a butcher's knife...The everyday cleaver, the cai dao or vegetable knife, is unexpectedly light and dexterous, as suitable for slicing a small shallot as a great hunk of meat, and used by everyone from the most macho chef to the frailest old lady."
She goes on to describe all the ways this single knife can be used. The extra-sharp tip can peel the skin of ginger or bone out a duck. The flat of the blade can smash garlic while the spine can pound meat. A cleaver can be used to create paper-thin slices of carrot and remove the skin from a fish. A multi-tasking kitchen tool, indeed.
What's more, cleavers are very inexpensive. They are made of carbon steel and usually have simple wooden handles (which can double as a pestle, by the way). Look for them at Asian markets and make sure to keep yours sharp.
Do you use a Chinese cleaver at home?
• Buy the Book: Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China by Fuchsia Dunlop, $12 on Amazon.