Some years ago I was at a cooking demonstration by the chef from an upscale Chinese restaurant. He talked as he sliced and diced and julienned, moving his fancy 10" chef’s knife without any apparent effort through a heap of vegetables, making little piles of perfectly uniform pieces. He told how, when he was just starting out after culinary school, he got a job in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant.
One of the other chefs was an older Chinese man. He watched the younger man as they sliced, diced, and julienned together. The older chef was both faster and more precise. He pointed at the younger’s fancy—and very expensive—knife and lifted his own in the air. It was a simple Chinese cleaver. He laughed. “Five dollars,” he said.
I began to pay attention when I peeked through the doors of Chinese restaurants to see the cooks working, or watched countermen in Chinese delis chop up chickens and thinly slice roasted meat, or saw butchers in action in the back of Asian markets. They all used the traditional cleaver, and it was their tool for both fine cutting and heavy chopping.
One day I was walking through Chinatown and outside a shop was a big box of imported cleavers. They were eight dollars apiece; inflation, I guess. Most of them were rather cheap looking stainless steel jobs, but mixed in with them were a few cleavers with heavy, heavy carbon steel blades and basic wooden handles. I couldn’t resist.
Back home I peeled off the protective glassine paper, carefully washed the rust-resisting grease from the blade, and tested the edge. Really, really sharp. With the keen edge and the blade’s weight it cut easily through anything I used it on, even very soft, very ripe tomatoes. I effortlessly chopped through bone to cut up chickens. And to my surprise the cleaver held its edge. I touched it up occasionally with a sharpening steel, but I didn’t need to do it very often. Moreover, it didn’t take long to adapt to the large rectangular blade, and I found I could use this one tool instead of two or three different knives.
Well, I did exaggerate a little. I used the word “effortlessly.” I never weighed the cleaver but it was the heaviest cutting tool I have ever used outside of my basement workshop. It didn’t take a long time cutting with it before my arm began tire, and after a while the arm began aching in complaint. I considered weight lifting to build up kitchen strength but decided against it. I finally had to give up the cleaver for everyday use and go back to my old knives.
I still use the cleaver for heavy jobs like chopping poultry or splitting a big winter squash. It’s great, but I don’t know how those Chinese chefs can use these cleavers all day. I have a new respect for them.
Do I recommend a Chinese cleaver? If there is an Asian grocery store near you should easily find a cheap generic one like mine. Yes, I do recommend one, but while you’re at it you should also get a couple of small dumbbells...and start working out with them.