That’s me, and the danger is to myself, specifically my fingers!
I first saw a Chinese cleaver many years ago, but to tell the truth I never imagined myself using one. Why not? well, because I thought that there was little likelihood of me hacking up chickens and ducks, or chopping through big beef bones. They looked so big, so clumsy and so heavy, who would not prefer their familiar and reliable collection of Sabatier knives?
I stand before you to confess that I was wrong, I have been completely won over and now my trusty cai dao is the only knife I want to use, indeed it is the only knife I need.
My conversion began when I was in a friend’s kitchen a few weeks ago helping to prepare a buffet dinner, she asked me to chop some parsley and some mint for tabbouleh and handed me a chopping board and a Chinese cleaver. Within moments I realised that it was just as good as a mezzaluna, if not better, and decided to get one for myself and experiment.
I asked a couple of Chinese friends what I should look for in a cleaver and whilst one said the blade must be made from carbon steel and it should have a wooden handle, the other said that stainless steel was the way to go and what the handle was made of was unimportant. What they both agreed on was that (a) it should not be too light; (b) it should not be too big or heavy – after all I am not going to be dismembering lamb carcasses; (c) it should feel comfortable in my hand.
I went off to the nearest Jinkelong (a Chinese supermarket chain) and spend half an hour trying out about 20 different cai dao. They all had more or less the same shape, though several had a hole in the top end of the blade (so that they could be hung from a hook), and they varied hugely in size and price. Finally, I found one that felt ‘right’ in my hand, it happened to be stainless steel, and has a steel and composite handle. It cost me the princely sum of 74 kuai – ie £7.40. I bore it home in triumph and set about finding out how to use it.
First of all I had to learn the correct way to hold it, which is with the thumb on one side of the blade just beyond the handle, and the first finger on the opposite side of the blade, and the remaining three fingers curled round the handle itself. This gives you maximum control of the cleaver.
It is a truly versatile tool, not only can you cut and chop meat or vegetables with it, you can peel the vegetables first. You can use it to make fine julienne of anything you choose, or use horizontally to make thin slices.
Used horizontally it can also fillet a fish. The flat of the blade can be used to crush garlic in order to peel it, or to crush ginger to allow the aromas to seep out. When you hold it with both hands and keep the tip on the cutting surface it can chop and shred herbs, and can mince meat. The blunt spine of the cleaver can be used to pound meat in order to tenderise it, the flat end of the blade can be used to scrape ginger or other things, and if you have a couple of cardamom or peppercorns to crush, pop them in a small bowl and use the handle as a pestle.
As far as I am concerned, one of the best things about the cleaver is that you can use the flat blade as a scoop to transfer chopped items into dishes, the cooking pan or wherever – this is incredibly useful and I found myself doing it instinctively.
The Chinese have at least a dozen (probably more) cutting techniques, depending on what you want the shape of the finished piece to be, long thin strands, perfect little cubes, simple slices etc. Proper knife skills are an art and require some tuition and much practice to acquire…I am merely a beginner but I am already enamoured. In fact, my foodie friends should not be surprised if they find a cai dao in their Christmas stockings this year!
Because my cai dao looks so lethal, I found myself humming the old nursery rhyme Oranges & Lemons ‘…here comes a candle to light you to bed, and here comes a chopper to chop off your head. Chip chop, chip chop, the last man’s dead!’