There are possibly a hundred or more specific kinds of knives from all over the world.
Two dozen or so are modern ones – the types you’d find in a kitchen block.
Several others are traditional pieces from different countries.
A whole lot of the bunch are from the Far East like Japan and China.
Such is the case with our two featured knives: the Japanese Santoku and the Chinese cleaver.
The Cleaver: An Important Kitchen Tool
In the traditional Chinese kitchen, there are five must-haves: the wok, the steamer, the wooden cutting board, the spatula which looks like a mini-shovel, and the cleaver.
This looks exactly like the large, hefty, rectangular slicer that butchers use.
The main distinction is the slight thickness of the spine and the incredibly thin bevel.
It may be interesting for a lot to see that, of the five listed above, this is the only tool for slicing.
And believe it or not, it has been the case for thousands of years.
A Short History
Historians believe that the prototype was an oddly-shaped metal used 4500 years ago in a historic site in Shanxi Province.
This V-shaped tool was wide and curved on one side and straight and narrow on the other.
The wider part seemed to be the slicer while the narrower one is the tang of the handle.
A more recognizable piece, something that looks like the one we use today, was used during the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 AD).
This blade was an all-rounder in the kitchen, used for practically all ingredients in traditional Chinese cooking (which is practically everything!)
The Anatomy of a Chinese Cleaver
Two main points must be considered when getting this particular tool: the physical traits and its feel in your hand.
How Should It Look:
- Broad, rectangular blade measuring 8 inches in length and 4 inches in width
- Slightly thick, rounded off the spine, about 2 mm or less, that amazingly tapers into the bevel
- The spine can be straight or concave
- V-shaped bevel, sharpened to 15 degrees or less
- Edges (belly) can be straight or slightly convex
- The handle should be easily gripped
- The heel should be tall and rounded off
- Full tang
- No bolster
How Should It Feel:
- Heavy yet comfortable
- When you hold the knife, it should tilt down because the blade should be heavier
What Is This For?
Today, a lot of people associate this piece with vegetable dishes, especially for julienning carrots or halving whole cabbages and slicing them into coleslaw thinness.
But if you try watching old Chinese cooks, you’ll see that this is a multipurpose tool and that every part of it has a specific use.
- Peeling, halving, and slicing large fruits and vegetables like squash and gourds
- Slicing, chopping, dicing vegetables and fruits
- Sectioning poultry
- Chopping meat, even ones with bones
(Do be careful with large bones since there are better butchering tools for this task)
- Slicing meat, poultry, and seafood
- Pounding aromatics (using the face of the blade or the butt or end of the handle)
- Mincing aromatics and herbs
- Using the wide part of the blade to transfer ingredients from the board to the pot
Santoku: The Most Famous Asian Blade of All Time
Before the 90s, one would hardly find an Asian-style blade in an American kitchen.
It’s even rarer in Europe since they have Solingen in Germany and Thiers in France, well-known hubs for metalcraft.
Most home cooks relied on the Chef’s knife because it was familiar and quite versatile.
Things changed when TV chef Rachel Ray gushed about an oddly-shaped blade that she was using.
After that episode, many wanted to own that piece.
Soon, American and European cutlery companies included this tool in their lines.
This knife is the Santoku.
The Offspring of the Cleaver
A lot of Far Eastern countries have interconnected cultures that transcend to their everyday lives so it shouldn’t be surprising if you see a historical artifact from China that looks the same as one in Japan or Korea.
This is the case with the Chinese cleaver and the Japanese Nakiri.
That might seem like a superfluous side story but you’ll see why this is necessary here.
See, the Nakiri is the design basis of the Santoku.
Unbeknownst to a lot of people, the Santoku was brought into being after the Second World War.
At this time, Japan was undergoing a great cultural shift that had a huge impact on its food.
More and more locals were looking for a tool versatile enough for many ingredients.
The name it was given meant ‘three virtues’ since it can slice, dice, and chop meat, fish, and vegetables.
The Anatomy of a Santoku
The Nakiri, a rectangular vegetable shredder and chopper, was reshaped so that it also be used on meat and seafood.
Craftsmen kept the straight spine of the Nakiri as well as the longer heel. From the spine, the tip of the blade was curved down. From the heel, the belly arcs up creating a convex belly. The two intersects in a sheep’s foot tip.
The curved rounded-off tip is one of the things which Rachel Ray admired about this knife.
It felt less dangerous than conventional Western knives with extremely sharp tips.
The hollow edge / shallow indentations right on top of the bevel were also a great feature.
This prevented food from sticking to the knife, making chopping board chores way more efficient.
What Is This For?
As aforementioned, this can slice, dice, and chop. But here are the specifics:
- Mince aromatics (onion, garlic, and ginger) and herbs
- Thinly peel the rind of citrus
- Peel the hard shell of the squash
- Dice onions, potatoes, etc.
- Julienne carrots and similar items
- Break down a whole chicken into several pieces
- Slice steak across the grain
- Prep fish (remove the head, cut into pieces, make filets)
Note: there is a specific tool for filleting fish in the Japanese line of knives but this can do a decent job
Which Should You Own?
To be honest, the Santoku is not just a versatile blade.
Rachel Ray wasn’t joking when she said that this is a friendlier knife, especially for new home cooks. On top of that, the Chinese cleaver takes a bit (actually, a lot) of getting used to.
If you’re just starting to find your way in the kitchen, get the former.
The good thing is, most knife sets already include the Santoku. So if you already have that and you’re willing to shell out a bit more for extra tools, the Chinese cleaver is a good buy.
Again, it’s just as versatile. You just need to learn how to use it.
Last Updated on July 21, 2021 by Andy Wang