The cleaver is an intimidating flash of stainless steel. The blade is rectangular, about twenty-five centimetres in length and almost one centimetre thick at the spine. The tang runs the full length of the handle, which is a flattened cylinder of metal with the same brushed hue. There are two grooves on the bottom edge of the handle, blending in seamlessly with its sides. The curves and lines of the cleaver have an ease to them, a fluidity, as if metal would naturally flow into these shapes. Just looking at the heavy blade makes you quiver. It’s able to part meat and bone in one strike. Your fingers twitch with the urge to take the handle, to close your grip around its perfectly shaped bottom edge. You know it’ll have a good heft to it. The blade is stamped with the logo of its manufacturer—广东阳江 特珠钢 | Guǎngdōng Yángjiāng Special Steel.
Using a cleaver is about force and momentum. My dad brings the cleaver upwards, letting it swing down under its own weight. Bang! A fish head is severed from its body, jaw shuddering from the impact. My dad turns the cleaver, calling its flat surface into action. Smack! A thumb of ginger splatters open, spilling its aroma. My dad rocks the cleaver back and forth on the chopping board. Fwup! Fwup! Fwup! A spring onion stalk is slashed into four segments. My dad faces the blunt spine of the cleaver down. Thump! Thump! Thump! A cucumber is crushed, white seeds and clear fluid flowing out of its jagged surface.
Using a cleaver requires precision. Tap-a-tap-a-tap-a-tap! My dad finely dices cloves of garlic into pointed tips. Thump. Thump. Thump. The beat of the cleaver passing through a hunk of aromatic braised beef, slices falling cleanly and evenly. With a cupped hand at one end of the meat and the cleaver at the other, he runs the cleaver along the chopping board, scooping slices of meat onto its flat edge.
There is a Chinese proverb that states ‘好肉长在骨头边’ | ‘the best meat is next to the bone’. Sweet and sour spare ribs, a dish originating from the Shànghǎi region, has always been a family favourite. The pork ribs need to be cut into one-inch segments, perfect mouth-sized morsels. My dad is well practiced with the cleaver. Bang! Bang! Bang! He lifts it to chest height and still the blows land exactly where he intends.
I’ll often see him sitting on the step outside the kitchen, holding the cleaver in one hand and a 磨刀石 | whetstone in the other. The whetstone is soaked in water for an hour before it is used. When it is ready, the matte stone has the same texture as Kai Iwi’s black sand shore after a wave has receded. My dad passes the length of the cleaver along the whetstone in one steady stroke. The contact makes a soothing sound, like a branch dragged across concrete. He turns the cleaver over. The sharpened side catches the light. He draws the underside along the coarse stone, and the sun’s bright reflection dances on its beveled edge.
Every couple of years, the cleaver will be replaced with an identical successor. The cleavers we buy can only withstand so much sharpening and split so much bone before their cutting edge is too thin and jagged to be useful. The old cleaver is retired from the kitchen. My bu‘uah takes it for her garden. She beats the lawn with it, turning over the grass to clear a vegetable patch.
Western-style knives typically have a wedge-shaped blade. Compared to Chinese knives, they are smaller and lighter, with much thinner blades. Depending on the intended purpose for the Western knife, it can have a variety of grinds: hollow, convex, and compound to name a few. For this reason, a Western kitchen will have numerous knives, with different grinds and forms. A Chinese kitchen often has just one, the flat ground cleaver. Sometimes there will be a secondary 菜刀 | vegetable knife, also with a wide rectangular blade. Outsiders often mistakenly identify the 菜刀 | vegetable knife as a cleaver, as it has the same profile, but the blade is not heavy nor thick enough to cut through bone. Hence the Mandarin for cleaver is 骨刀 | bone knife.
Even professional Chinese chefs prepare ingredients with just their cleaver. Careful attention is paid to how things are cut, as this influences the flavour and texture of the dish. If you want to say that a blade is sharp, in Mandarin the correct way to describe it is to say that it is 快 | quick. I have watched an experienced chef slice tofu into hair-thin strands, light enough to float to the top of a bowl of soup. ‘Quick’ seems to me a much better characterisation of the knife’s power.
As Chinese food is eaten with chopsticks, all of the chopping is done during the preparation of the dish. There are many ways to shape the ingredients:
段 means segments,
like snapping off sections of young bamboo shoots.
片 means thin slices,
like peeling rounds from a crisp carrot.
块 means chunks,
like carving a potato into smaller blocks.
丁 means small cubes,
like dicing a cucumber into fingertip-sized portions.
条 means strips,
like turning a sheet of tofu skin into wide noodles.
丝 means thin strips,
like shredding a turnip so finely that it is akin to silk.
末 means powder,
like mincing garlic until it turns to fresh snow.
There are also many ways to feel the striking action of the cleaver:
斩 means to behead, to dismember the animal while it is still alive.
This is how freshness is ensured.
剁 means to chop, but with a speed, a vigor to it.
The fast pitter-patter sound of the cleaver needs to be heard.
砍 means to hack, to use a large sweeping motion to engage the full power of the metal.
The same word is used to describe the force to fell trees.
切 means simply to cut,
use the cleaver as you know.
There is a Chinese dish from 扬州 | Yángzhōu region called 三套鸭 | three nested ducks. The dish consists of three birds, a pigeon, a duck, and a sheldrake, nested within one another. I once watched a video online of a chef preparing this elaborate dish.
The birds are plucked and gutted, wholly intact except for an incision at the base of their necks. The chef explains that the birds must be deboned, but the skin needs to remain unperforated. To achieve this, he widens the cut to the shoulder and begins to meticulously turn the bird inside out, extracting the bones of the rib cage, then the wings and the legs. He is careful not to tear any of the skin in this process, especially the delicate section around the duck’s chest.
The resulting carcass looks like a deflated rubber duck, but as he says, the shape of the duck is retained. It is vital to the success of the dish that the shape of the duck is retained. The pigeon is nested within the duck, and the duck is nested within the sheldrake. The body of the sheldrake is now filled out to the plumpness of a healthy bird. Three bird heads stick out of the drake’s body, curving together like a set of spoons.
I flirted with the idea of making this dish, and found a recipe online. The opening line was ‘将家鸭、野鸭和鸽子宰杀治净’ | ‘first slaughter the duck, sheldrake and pigeon cleanly’. I remembered that when I was ten, my kon-kon got his hands on a live chicken. It was reddy-brown, a retired laying hen. Even though chicken meat could be easily purchased, my kon-kon had an urge to prepare chicken soup the traditional way.
I was morbidly fascinated by the slaughter. He did it right there, in the backyard of our house in Panmure. I couldn’t see, or didn’t look, at the moment the cleaver came down on the chicken’s neck.