Chinese cleaver, popularly known as the vegetable cleaver, has a reputable place in the culinary industry for its multipurpose use.
It is a sturdy chef knife used for various tasks like slicing, mincing, and chopping and thus is widely regarded as a one-stop knife for multiple functions.
Over the years, with the entry of more types of chopper chopping tools, the old traditional style knife lost its prominence, but as they say, old is gold.
The Chinese cleaver is still cherished as an ideal tool to have in one’s kitchen.
While it may be easy for one to take this old-style knife for granted, the wholesome usage comes with precise skills and a good sense of care.
What is A Chinese Cleaver?
Chinese cleaver, referred to as the Cai Dao in Chinese households, is a staple knife in the culture.
That is because most Chinese chefs prefer working with a single blade, and the Chinese cleaver has been designed for just that.
The profile of this knife is also very much similar to the Chuka Bocho of Japan.
Moreover, Chinese cleavers come in a wide array of sizes and weights, with some being more suitable for fine cutting and slicing while others being used for light butchery skills.
Chinese cleavers are popularly called vegetable knives as they are particularly ideal for chopping/ cutting vegetables and fruits.
The enormous cutting surface area and compact handle make it safe to chop vegetables without getting one’s hand cut.
Regular Cleaver Vs. Chinese Cleaver
At the looks of it, the Chinese cleaver might seem to be like a butcher’s knife with its big bulky rectangular blade shafted on a wooden handle.
However, the two knives are different.
While the butcher’s knife or cleaver is used for heavy-duty meat-crushing tasks, Chinese cleaver (yes, the word cleaver can be considered a misnomer) is used for a broad spectrum of more finesse functions like peeling and slicing.
The difference between the two tools lies in their design. The heavy and thick blades of the cleaver are different from the delicate and refined blades of a Chinese cleaver.
The butcher’s knife or cleaver can be swung down to smash the meat with a broad cross-section and bulky handle.
The nature and dynamics of using a butcher’s knife are similar to that of a hammer or an ax.
The cleaver, however, has a much slender blade, thinner cross-section, and lightweight handle, all that enable it to perform the lighter tasks of chopping and slicing.
Use Of Chinese Cleaver
It is not uncommon to find that most traditional Chinese households would not believe in having an array of knives or other equipment like grinding tools or food processors.
For them, their dear Cai dao is an all-purpose tool that aids them in pretty much every step of their cooking process.
The blade is exceptionally sharp and precise for slicing purposes. Thus, the knife can be used to slice your carrots, cucumber, onion, and meat.
It is also suitable for more minute work like julienne ( cutting style to shred or thinly slice), cabbages, ginger, or avocado.
Mincing your garlic, ginger, or meat also becomes easy with the Chinese chef knife, as its fine blade allows for precision work.
It is also an ideal tool for working with seafood and meat. Thus, you could consider scaling and prepping your kingfish or tenderizing your flesh with the Chinese cleaver.
The primary factor that makes the Cali dao an all-purpose tool is the wide range of scope.
While the sharp-sided blade can be used for chopping slicing purposes, the spine could effectively tenderize meat.
Further, the flat side is suitable for crushing ginger or peeling open cloves of garlic.
Many chefs are creative when using the end side of the handle as a pestle to ground their food or even carve their fruits and vegetables into flowers!
Thus, Chinese cleavers can offer a wide range of services in a neat and precise manner.
Difficulties Using Chinese Cleaver
The Chinese chef knife has been an ancient part of Chinese cuisine preparation and is a versatile tool that can be used to either julienne radishes or hack through the meat.
The Chinese cleaver is a versatile knife capable of replacing an army of kitchen knives.
While the western chefs will be having a broad set of knives in their arsenal like bread knives, carving knives, utility knives, chef knives, and so on, Chinese chefs would have their Cai dao or Chinese chef knife as the prime and most of the time, the only knife for each cut.
Meaning, one has to know and be skilled enough to use it for multiple purposes.
While choosing the suitable cleaver, make sure to choose one that suits your comfort. Thus, selecting bulky cleavers won’t do your skills justice.
The first step towards using the knife is determined by whether you are right-handed or left-handed.
That will decide which side of the knife’s blade should be slanted to give you the correct angle while cutting ( if you are left-handed, the outer side of the blade should be slanted).
Secondly, before you start, always see if your knife is sharpened enough. You could use a sharpening stone for the same.
Thirdly, when you begin to cut your vegetables or meat, hold it down firmly, so it doesn’t slide off.
Always make sure to cut over a chopping board (an additional tip is to place a towel under the chopping board to have it firm).
Chinese Cleaver Maintenance
Good quality cleaver knives will have a good steel structure that makes them durable and resilient to corrosion and abrasion.
However, knives are one of the tools that people keep in their kitchens for generations.
There is something about old knives that keeps one close in their culinary space and wants it to last for a lifetime.
Such people who can keep their knives going on for years also realize the importance of maintaining the same.
The old Chinese cleaver blades were made of carbon steel. However, given their proneness to rusting and easy degradation, the new Chinese cleavers in the market are made of stainless steel.
With the Chinese cleavers, regular sharpening of the blade is of prime importance.
Thus, using a honing steel or sharpening stick will ensure the blade is realigned for high performance.
It is easy to remind oneself that even the most branded knives can display razor-sharp cuts initially, but knives, by their very nature, are susceptible to dull out due to wear and tear.
Before and after use, the blade should be protected from water or other materials that could trigger corrosion.
A dry and clean knife is a happy knife. Thus, after using, one has to thoroughly clean the knife with soap and water and dry it out before storing it.
Using a clean towel to dry your knife is recommended.
In case you are working the knife on acidic ingredients that are bound to react with metal and damage the blade (e.g., Lemon, onions, or tomatoes), make sure to clean it immediately.
Leaving your knives in the sink for a prolonged period is a major sin as it means giving more time for it to soak in with acidic and other elements from other dishes, thus damaging the blade.
While cleaning your knives, a pro tip is to use your hands.
Yes! While one could have the luxury of dishwashers, cleaning sensitive equipment like knives requires added care. Many people don’t pay attention to where they store their knives.
A wooden or bamboo block is an ideal place to keep your blades protected from unwanted dirt and dust.
Do not consider storing it with other kitchen utensils as there is a high possibility of them rubbing against each other, leaving the blade damaged.
One of the pro tip recommendations is to oil your knife to protect it further (camellia oil has received a particular appreciation in this aspect).
Chinese chef knives or cleavers have been a rich part of the culinary world.
They have been extensively and intensively used in the Asian kitchens to prepare food employing wide cuts: julienne, slice, dice, chop.
The blade and the other aspects of the cleaver like the spine, the blunt edge, and the handle give broad scope to its usage.
They are one piece of equipment that nobody would mind not having on their kitchen shelves.
It is an all-purpose knife compatible with different cuts, thus aiding you in preparing a wide range of meals.
Though the knife has not been designed for heavy-duty butchering, the thicker versions within Chinese cleavers can perform minimum meat processing tasks.
With new knives coming in the market, our arsenal has been crowded with varieties, and the Cai Dao might have taken a back seat.
However, it is one knife that has a special place because it is almost the perfect knife.
It is a great knife to master, and with persistent skilling and good care, one can utilize the full potential of the marvel that the Chinese cleaver is!