The Chinese Cleavers is preferred knife by Chinese Chef. Some consider it to be the Chinese Chef Knife. Unlike a western chef knife, a Chinese cleaver is designed to be a all around kitchen work horse. You can use the broad side of the blade to smash and scoop food. The spine can be use to whack and crack stuff. All these task can be done in a matter of seconds. However, not all Chinese Cleaver are the same. Different cleaver will be suited for different task.
Different Type of Chinese Cleaver
There are three main type of Chinese cleaver. They all serve different purpose and should be used according to the task at hand. Your average Chinese Chef will usually carry these three knife.
Chinese Vegetable Cleaver
The most popular is the vegetable cleaver. This is what most people thing of when they think of Chinese Cleaver. The blade is relatively thin with a thick spine. The weight is front bias with a flat profile. This means that there is little to no belly to the blade. Although some will usually have some sort of curve on either side of the edge.
These knives are usually use to chop vegetable and cut up meat. While the spine of the knife can crack some bones, they are not meant to chop up bones.
To Chop with these, you will mostly use the weight of the blade to chop. The wide blade also means that you can use it to scoop food up.
Most Chinese Chef in America uses Dexter Russel. They were very commonly sold in the Chinese communities. The stainless steel blade and relatively thickness means that it can take the abuse dished out by Chef. The wooden handle also helps prevent slippage when your hand is greasy. Compared to other manufacturer it is also relatively affordable, hence the popularity.
Chinese Butcher Knife
To break bones and cut up whole chicken, a Chinese Butcher knife. The spine on these knife are really thick. This aid in the weight and force when you strike the bone. It also prevents the blade from snapping like the thinner Chinese Vegetable Cleaver. When you grab it, it will feel very front bias.
The profile of the knife is usually curved to let you work the contour of the bone. There are some varieties to a Chinese Butcher Knife but the most common looks like the figure above.
Lesser Knife or Xiao Dao
These knife have half the size of the Chinese Vegetable Cleaver. They appearance resemble that of a Nakiri. However, in term or usage and design, it is very different. These Xiao Dao are meant to be used to carve intrinsic design in Chinese Cuisine. Things such as dragon from melons or flowers out of carrot.
The Japanese use nakiri more as a Kitchen Workhorse. They are more weighted and balance. Were as the Chinese Lesser Knife is unweighted and feels a little flimsy. The advantage gain from this is more control. However, they should not be used as a substitute for a Traditional Chinese Vegetable Knife.
Dexter Russel is still the preferred choice in this category. I have one that is over 20 year old and its still going strong.
How to Use and hold a Chinese Cleaver
When you grip the knife, it is very similar to a western chef knife. You grip the spine of the knife with your index and thumb. Using your non dominant hand make a claw and always keep it next to the blade. This lets you chop without accidentally cutting your finger off.
To Chop food, you use a tap motion to cut food. Let the weight of the knife do most of the work. Because of the flat profile of the blade, it should cut clean through. Do not try to whack it through. You will just tire yourself out. In a western knife, you need to use a rolling motion for the clean cut. Its a different style of cutting.
The spine, heel of the handle and the broad side of the blade can and should be used for smashing. If you have a tough item, whacking it with the spine of the knife is recommended. For smashing garlic, you can just raise the knife and whack it with the flat side of the blade. The heel of the knife can be used to smash garlic round. If done properly, you can see how much faster mincing and crushing food is. Martin Yan demonstrate this perfectly in the video below.
Another popular technique used is the horizontal slice. This is where you lay a chicken breast or other thick item flat on its side. You will use your non dominant hand and hold it down. The knife when then slice horizontally to open it up to make it thinner. If you are not experienced with this, then I recommend that you go slowly until you are more skilled and comfortable with this technique. The last thing you want is a cut hand.
Storing and Sharpening your Chinese Chef Knife
Storage of these knife is kind of hard. You need a dedicated flat slot that will fit the width of the knife. Since those are a little difficult to find. A Magnetic Strip will work just as well. You just need to mount it somewhere safe.
To Sharpen your knife, a whetstone is the best way to bring back its edge. However, for intermittent use, a sharpening steel will work just fine. To use a sharpening steel, point the sharp edge on the table and angle the Cleaver at 20 degree. You will move the knife downward on both side. If done at the proper interval, it should keep your knife sharp a lot longer.
There are two type of Cutting Board that Chinese Chef use. The Round Wooden Block and the Plain White Cutting Board. They both have their own quality and can be seen depending on the setting. In China, the preferred choice is the cross section of a tree. These are usually very thick and require extensive oiling on first use. If not done, it will split and crack. However, these block are naturally antimicrobial and generally soft on a blade. You can often see them used by street vendors or butchers.
In a restaurant setting, the white NSF certified board are more common. They are easy to clean and can be used in a dishwasher. I would say for the home cook, these boards are a lot more versatile than the latter. Washing those large block can be cumbersome and tiring.
Best Chinese Cleaver
I recommend that you stick with Dexter Russel for a Chinese Cleaver. Because of the abuse that these knife take, you do not want to invest in something that is too expensive. The stainless steel construction is thick and can take the abuse. My set has been in my family for over 20 years and its still used today. There is a reason why Chinese Chef carry these knives around.
There is a version CCk that is often touted by magazine. They are amazing for cutting vegetables but they are also pretty thin. I would be hesitant to smash garlic like I would with the Dexter Russel knife. It feels like it would snap if I did the same thing.
If you plan on cooking Chinese food than a Chinese Cleavers is a must. It can become your new favorite knife. While it does look a little intimidating, once you get use to it you will see just how fast you can cook with it. Just be sure that you get the right knife for the job. The main thing you want is the vegetable cleaver. Just dont go around chopping bones with it. There is a dedicated knife for it. I hope you give it a try, good luck in the Kitchen!
Looking for a Japanese Chef Knife, check out our article on Shun vs Global vs Miyabi