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Thread: Discourse on why I love Chinese Cleavers re-post

  1. #1
    Senior Member Andy777's Avatar
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    Discourse on why I love Chinese Cleavers re-post

    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.
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    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.)

  2. #2
    Senior Member Andy777's Avatar
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    Cleaver technique post

    Cleaver technique repost

    I don't consider myself a cleaver expert. However I get quite a bit of email questions about cleavers I figured why not post some of my answers so everyone can read them. Lots of the info is pretty simplistic, but they are all answers to questions I've received multiple times. Considering that there is literally no information available on cleavers on the internet, I hope some people will find the information useful. Most of this information applies to the thin "slicer" type cleavers that are large 22x11cm and relatively light 400-475 grams. much info won't prove useful on smaller 8"x3" cleavers (such as the popular Dexter.) I'll organize this as a simple Q&A.

    How should I hold a cleaver?

    The proper way to hold a cleaver is the pinch-grip method. I use both a one-finger and a a two finger pinch grip ( I call this the Chen Kenichi grip.) The one-finger method is easier to use on quicker and less articulate cutting. The two-finger method gives a lot more blade control and balance for articulate cutting.



    What exactly is the push-cut method?

    The push cut method is the most common technique used with a cleaver. You keep the blade horizontal to the board and move slightly forward as you allow the blade to fall downward. Here is one of my world famous drawings giving a good idea of the technique. This allows the edge to slice as it chops. It's a very simple technique with only one thing that you need to watch. Many people have way too much horizontal movement when they push-cut. From my experience the blade should only move about 1/4" forward for every 1" of vertical movement.

    I get very tired after using a cleaver for a very short period, what should I do?

    The most important thing to remember about cleavers is to let the blade do all the work. The large size yet super thin profile allows the blade to slice with ease and use it's own weight to do the cutting instead of through your own effort. When you do anything other than simply "guide" the cleaver you will tire easily.

    Can you use a straight up and down chop with a hard-steeled Japanese cleaver with out worry of damaging the blade?

    Yes you can chop with a thin sharp hard steeled cleaver with no problems. About 50% of the cutting I do with a cleaver is a straight up and down chop. Most of the cleavers I own are noticeably thinner at the edge than a gyuto and have rc63+ steel. I still have yet to chip an edge on a cleaver or suffer premature dulling.

    After trying to explain my cleaver technique to many people I came up with a foolproof exercise to learn to use a cleaver properly. This exercise solves the three main problems people confront when learning to use a cleaver. It will teach you the proper push cut form, how to use a cleaver without tiring, and how to chop with a cleaver without severely dulling or damaging the blade.

    First, gather a couple food items for practicing your cleaver technique. I like potatoes and a large thick skinned fruit like an orange. Place the tip of your cleaver on top of the product as shown in the previous drawing.


    Gently hold the butt of the cleaver handle with two or three fingers so you are merely stabilizing it from falling, no more. Gently guide the cleaver forward as it literally falls through the food. You will notice that on the potato the cleaver will only need ~1/2" of forward movement to cut all the way through to the board. Many times all the cleaver needs is a 1/8" push forward to break the surface tension and it will fall directly through the food will no more effort. Practice this several times until you have a good idea of the principal. The purpose of this is really just to see how little or no downward pressure is necessary to cut with your cleaver.

    Next, do the same exercise as before but with a proper grip. Make sure to just lightly hold the cleaver and let the weight and edge do all the cutting. Your forearm, wrist, and hand should be loose and relaxed. I recommend you solely use this technique until you have a really good understanding of the amount of pressure and effort to use. Occasionally large, fibrous, wet, or sticky items, such as large pieces of meat or a giant onion, will need some slight downward effort on your part. Once you have mastered the no effort technique it will be easy for you to add small amounts of pressure as needed.

    Throughout your practice with and use of the cleaver pay close attention to how hard the cleaver is hitting the board. This is how hard the cleaver should be hitting the board when you do a standard chop. With practice you will be able to switch between a push-cut and chop with ease and very little edge deterioration.

    In my "Discourse on why I love chinese cleavers" post I discussed how I find a cleaver superior for safely holding items with the left hand while cutting with your right. The proper technique for cutting safely involves tucking your thumb and finger tips back while keeping your middle knuckes parallel to the side of the knife. You rest your fingers against the blade and you move the knife up and down never bringing the edge above your knuckles. This effectively protects your holding hand. With the wider blade of a cleaver you will have more clearance over the food because you can raise your fingers up higher. You can even use the tip of your finger to guide the blade. I mention this because I found a perfect example of this technique from a challenger on Iron Chef and I was able to take some excellent pictures of this technique in action.






    Next time your itching to try something different in the world of kichen cutlery maybe you'll give a chinese cleaver a try.

  3. #3
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    This is great, especially for those (like me) who didn't get a chance to read it the first time. Thanks for re-posting on KKF.

  4. #4
    Great post, thanks! Now I want to try a cleaver.

  5. #5
    Senior Member Crothcipt's Avatar
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    I have been wanting to try a clever for a few years, now I am really itching to get one and show others. Great post it put in perspective what I had in my mind

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    For someone who says he is no cleaver expert, you understand the techniques very well for an American. I have been using these things for years as a station knife, one of the reasons being you can lean it against something on your station and then grab it easily. I did not really understand them until I helped too manage a Chinese kitchen in Bermuda and watched the cooks use them for everything; Thong Chai and his cooks made fun of me (privately, Guanxi would preclude any direct teasing) for carrying around a bag full of knives when I used a cleaver on the line. I keep one finger out on the blade and my middle finger and thumb in a pinch grip on the bolster; I adjust this a little when I use the heavier version. I actually use a bit of a draw cut when chopping, and rock up from the heel.

    When slicing, I lay my index finger on the top of the spine and use a once forward-and-back saw motion with the tip just barely touching the board-most of the movement is in the elbow with the shoulders at an angle and the body slightly bent over the food being cut. This knife is not for placing tip done and moving up and down at the heel.

    I have been using Dexter carbons or my Wusthof my whole career, I just found the JCK site a few years ago. Thong Chai had a set of Masahiro sushi knives, but they saw little use at Chopsticks. I love this forum, I used to think I was obsessive about my blades, but here I fit right in! Learning a lot about custom knives, plus a whole new level of sharpening. Took delivery of a Saji Chukabocho from JCK a month ago, and am still freaking out over the edge and beauty of the damascus finish. Okay, there is mine! Cleaver nation, let's hear it!

    Hax the Cook CLEAVERS RULE!!!
    A barbeque believer will not profane pork by boiling, liquid-smoking, submeging in sous-vide, or affirm with those who do.

  7. #7
    Senior Member Deckhand's Avatar
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    Thank you for the post.

  8. #8
    Senior Member quantumcloud509's Avatar
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    Thanks Andy. Great post!

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    Really informative post, I really enjoyed it as it was well written and clearly illustrated your points.

  10. #10
    I don't like my cck because it made me feel stupid about my last two expensive Japanese knife purchase. Such a fun knife to use.

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