I've had some requests to re-post my "Discourse on Why I Love Chinese Cleavers" post from 7 years ago on KF. So take a stroll down memory lane and enjoy! Maybe we can convert a few more to the fold. Oh and by the way, I figured I'd re-post my cleaver technique post from back then too. Keep in mind I never claimed to be an expert, I just love using cleavers and watched a lot of the original Iron Chef. Without further ado, here are the posts.
I know many people out there wonder why I am so fond of chinese cleavers. Some people recently have had some questions on the subject so I not-so-briefly put it into words.
First let me get this out of the way. Chinese cleavers just look really cool. I mean come on, who doesn't like the look of a shiny 9"x4" razor sharp piece of metal. Everytime I use one I feel like I'm in the back alleys of chinatown cutting the heads off ducks. Is that enough to love cleavers? No. Secondly I prefer a light thin vegetable cleaver that is what I'll be discussing.
In my ever so humble opinion chinese cleavers shouldn't be rocked. At least not in the sense of keeping the tip of the knife always on the board. If you try to use a cleaver the way you use a chef's knife with the tip never leaving the board you will be left thinking "why heck am I using this giant clumsy cumbersome knife, my gyuto is so much better" and you would be right. Is there some rocking involved in using one? Of course. I think there are three style of cut in which the cleaver excels: 1) the usaba or push cut. 2) the straight up and down chop with one end just barely leading and the other, landing a split second thereafter for a slight rock at the end (Iron Chef Chen Kenichi is the master of this when you see his machine gun chop it looks like a wild flayling but if you slow it down it is very accurate and deliberate.) 3) What I like to call the "stab and drag" technique, which is leaving the tip of the cleaver on the board and having the blade at a 35 degree angle to the board, then you just drag the cleaver and slice whatever is in it's path.
Why do cleavers cut so great? I think one element is the fact that they can have the weight of a german knife (or more) with the super thin blade profile of a japanese knife. The best of both worlds in a sense. This is why I think that a $20 chinatown clever cuts better in many ways than a $100 german knife. The weight of the knife does all the cutting you just need to lift it up and guide it as it falls. The super thin blade allows them to cut much better than any german knife could. When I cut a tomato with a cleaver I just set the edge on the skin and push forward, with never a thought of pushing down, and it cuts like butter.
Sometimes when doing many thin cuts with the tip of a chef's knife you have to exert because of the leverage constraint. In my opinion any time you exert you sacrifice accuracy. On a cleaver you have 4 inches of steel backing the tip up. Thin japanese gyutos are much better in this regard but you get the idea.
In an odd way I feel I have more control with a cleaver. Some may say that the large size is dificult to manage. I would disagree. With the big square cleaver I know where all of the knife is at all times. I'm never going to get caught by a stray tip because the knife turned. It's similar to the fact that you would have to go out of your way to be hit by a bus, you see it coming from a mile away. There is a larger margin of error when cutting with the middle knuckle parallel to the blade. With a normal knife as I put my knuckle paralell I can't lift the blade too high or I could cut myself but if I lift my finger too high it will be over the top of the spine. With the cleaver the sky is the limit as to how far I can lift. I raise my knuckle just above the product and I have 4 inches of leeway before my knuckle is over or under the knife.
Also when doing super fine delicate cuts where I need lots of control I use my 3 fingers and thumb to hold the product and I lift my index finger and place the fingertip on the side of the cleaver 2 or 3 inches away from the edge. I leave my finger in the same spot and lift it up and down with the knife. This technique is what I used when cutting the potato fans I did a while back. It was super fast and very easy to be accurate with each cut. Try doing that with a chef's knife.
My perfect cleaver would be large 22-24cm, wide 10-12cm, and as thin as possible. For a cleaver that size the weight should fall between 400-475g. However, the more I have used my Watanabe cleaver (which weighs in at 520g) the more I really don't mind the extra weight. The other day I chopped with it for 30 minutes and wasn't fatigued. I just need to remember to let the cleaver do all the work. Most of the high end Japanese made cleavers fall between 500-550g which I have started to shy away from, but I may rethink that and give them more of a chance.
I also don't need as much curve as most. A perfectly straight edge is definetly a No. All you need is a slight curve for the cleaver to fall smoothly and not jarringly like happens with a perfectly flat edge. In my opinion if the middle of the edge is on the board the two ends should lift up only 4 or 5mm to be effective. More curve is acceptable as well, the ends on the Watanabe for instance probably lift 7 or 8mm.
Recently I have had a chance to use a couple cleavers with longer handles. It is really growing on me. I can say I prefer that style.
Since the car analogy is so popular I'll continue it. Some would compare a chinese cleaver to a truck and a thin graceful gyuto to a Porche. I however, would argue that a good chinese cleaver is much like a Bently, bigger than most sports cars but faster, smoother and more maneuverable than many in the lot. (I'm no car expert but you know what I mean.)