Nakiri Vs Cleaver: What’s The Difference? Which Is Better?

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The word ‘cleaver’ is a generic term referring to knives with a rectangular blade – with a straight spine that is parallel to the belly and a high heel that is congruent to the flat tip. While most cleavers are thick, heavy, and used to disjoint meat and bones, some are thin and incredibly sharp. The Nakiri used to chop and slice fruits and vegetables, is considered to be the latter.

Strictly speaking, there are many kinds of cleaver that can be used on different items. In fact, the Nakiri is one of them.

But just for the sake of clear comparative analysis, here are the differences between the conventional meat cleaver and the Japanese Nakiri.

Nakiri Cleaver
Origin Japan Europe / Asia
Category Modern Japanese Butcher’s / Meat Processor
Function Vegetable chopper, primarily Meat Cutter, Chopper
Kinds of Food to Cut Vegetables

 

Meat, primarily

Can be used for seafood and

veggies with thick, tough skin

Blade Profile Wide and Rectangular Wide and Rectangular
Blade Thickness Thin Thick
Handle Form Round, Octagonal, Flat/Straight Flat/Straight

Related: The best cleavers for your money

Overview Of The Nakiri

The nakiri knife can be traced all the way to the Japanese Edo period.

During this time, eating four-legged animals was against the law, so a typical Japanese diet would usually involve fish, rice, and vegetables.

From this, the Nakiri was born.

A Nakiri is a knife that is specifically designed to cut and slice vegetables, particularly ones you’ll find in Japanese cuisine.

It has a rectangular blade that is slightly rounded towards the edge, though for the most part, remains straight.

This means that the entire edge comes into contact with the cutting board when you’re slicing.

Because of that, chefs have to lift the knife up whenever they slice, as opposed to using a rocking-chop motion.

While lifting the knife may be tricky at first, especially if you’re used to rocking motions, it can actually make for a better cutting experience.

The flat blade makes it easier to make straight and even cuts, allowing for more precision in the kitchen.

And while it isn’t the most popular Japanese knife out there, it is definitely one of the more unique and better-looking ones, which is why they definitely deserve your attention.

Overview Of The Cleaver

While at first glance, a cleaver might just look like a bigger version of a Nakiri, this isn’t the case.

Upon closer inspection, they are actually very different.

A cleaver is typically a large knife with a thick, rectangular blade designed to cut and slice through heavy ingredients like meat and bone.

Standard Western meat cleavers usually have a slight curve to the rectangular blade, while Chinese ones are flatter.

But we’ll touch more on that later.

Cleaver blades have a very tough edge that is designed to handle hard and tough ingredients such as cartilage, bone, and dense meat.

They are typically used as butcher’s knives, but they are also multi-purpose tools for a bunch of chefs.

A cleaver is normally used by swinging it like a meat tenderizer or hammer.

This makes it easier to cut through the heavier ingredients, and since it is made with a tough edge, it can withstand the contact.

However, there are two types of cleavers that you’ll usually find in a kitchen, and in the next section, we’ll take a look at their differences.

Meat Cleaver Vs Chinese Cleaver

The main difference between a meat cleaver and a Chinese cleaver is the thickness.

Typically, Chinese cleavers have thinner backs on the blade and generally thinner blades than Western cleavers.

This gives it the ability to be used as a chef knife – a multi-purpose tool designed to handle most kitchen tasks.

However, these blades will not be as strong as thick cleavers, so you might not be able to handle the same ingredients.

Chinese chefs will typically use a cleaver as a chef’s knife, handling most of their cutting and slicing jobs.

Another noticeable difference is the blade shape.

As we mentioned earlier, Chinese cleavers will have a flatter edge than Western ones, which tend to have a slight curve.

The curve allows chefs to use a rocking motion as well as the swinging motion to chop ingredients.

The flat edge on the Chinese cleaver doesn’t allow that, but it does make it easier for users to get straighter and more precise cuts.

Nakiri Vs Cleaver – Which Is The Best Pick For Your Kitchen?

In this section, we’ll be going over the features of these knives and see how they stack up when compared against each other.

The Blade

First things first, let’s take a look at the blade.

A Nakiri is supposed to be smaller than a chef knife, as it is designed to handle smaller ingredients like vegetables.

So ideally, you would want a blade that is around 5” in length.

Nakiri blades are generally very sharp and made out of high-carbon steel, so they will have an edge made to last a long time.

Like most Japanese blades, the edge will be sharpened down to an angle of 15-17 degrees.

With a cleaver, the blade will be much bigger.

Most cleavers are around 10.5-12 inches in total length, with blades measuring about 5-8 inches long.

On top of that, meat cleaver blades are thick and large, as they are designed to cut through heavier ingredients.

The Handle

Like with most modern blades, both a nakiri and a cleaver can have different handles attached to them.

Traditionally, a nakiri will have an octagonal handle like most traditional Japanese knives.

While this might take some getting used for those accustomed to Western knives, it can make for a much more comfortable and controlled grip.

Cleavers, on the other hand, typically have rounded handles made of a smooth material.

This allows for a comfortable grip, which is very important when using a lot of pressure.

With both of these knives, you can find handles made of a variety of materials.

Some will be made of wood, while others might be made of synthetic materials like PP or PakkaWood.

The Edge

A nakiri is made to have a very sharp edge.

As we said earlier, it will typically be sharpened down to 15-17 degrees, which is very sharp.

However, some nakiri models will have a single-beveled edge, meaning that right-handed and left-handed chefs would have to get different models.

But since there are more and more models popping up every day, it won’t be that hard to find a double-beveled nakiri either.

A cleaver, since it is designed to be a more heavy-duty blade won’t be as sharp.

Most modern cleavers are sharpened to an angle of 25 degrees on each side, which makes them sharp enough to make clean cuts, while also be durable enough to withstand a lot of abuse.

Usage

Another huge difference between these two blades is what they are used for.

Nakiri knives are designed for vegetables.

That means they’ll be able to slice through a variety of fruits and vegetables with ease.

And because of the way the blade is designed, you will be able to get very straight and precise cuts.

A cleaver, on the other hand, is designed for meat, cartilage, bones, and other heavy materials.

This is why the knife itself is hefty and usually used by butchers.

However, Chinese cleavers, which are larger than nakiri knives and smaller than Western cleavers, are designed to be used like a chef’s knife.

So these blades can be used for cutting meat, vegetables, fruits, herbs, and a variety of other ingredients.

Pros And Cons Of A Nakiri

Pros:

  • Ideal for cutting vegetables
  • Very sharp blade
  • Unique and beautiful designs
  • Ergonomic handles
  • Allows chefs to cut with speed and accuracy

Cons:

  • Can’t handle heavier ingredients
  • Can be pretty hard to find

Pros And Cons Of A Cleaver

Pros

  • Hefty blade designed for heavy ingredients
  • Strong and durable build
  • Can cut through meat, cartilage, and even bones
  • Sharp enough to cut through a lot of ingredients
  • Ideal for butchers and chefs who work with a lot of meat

Cons

  • Might be too heavy for some
  • Can’t be used for more precise tasks

Conclusion

So, there you have it, a thorough rundown of the uses and features of each of these blades.

Now, the right model for you will largely depend on your own needs and preferences in the kitchen.

If you feel like you’ll be working mostly with vegetables and fish, and you already have a chef knife on hand, then a nakiri would be a great addition.

However, if you need a heavy blade that can cut through thick meat, cartilage, and bone, then what you need is a cleaver.

So, make sure to ask yourself, what do I need in my kitchen?

And from there, it’ll be much easier to figure out the right knife for you!

Last Updated on September 2, 2021

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My name is Andy Wang, and I'm a retired chef. I used to work at the City Vineyard restaurant in NYC. I also had a culinary degree from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York. And this blog is where I share my love for knives and cooking with people like you.