Cutting up food into uniform pieces is one of the most important skills to master in Chinese cooking. And once you learn to use an all-purpose Chinese chef’s knife, it’s easier than you think. If Yan can cut, so can you!
I like to tell my viewers and students that the Chinese chef’s knife is the original Chinese food processor. It can slice, mince, chop, crush, tenderize, and scoop up food – and you can even use the end of the handle to grind spices. Complement it with a smaller paring knife for finer cutting and making garnishes, and you’ll be ready for just about anything.
–from Martin Yan’s Feast, The Best of Yan Can Cook, by Martin Yan, published by Bay Books, 1998.
Although the lightweight, all-purpose Chinese chef’s knife is sometimes called a cleaver and looks like a Western meat cleaver, it’s a different tool altogether (and thus should never be used for hacking bones – for that you’ll need a heavier one). A good Chinese chef’s knife is well balanced, well constructed, and has a fine blade that holds an edge. Always remember that a sharp knife is a safer knife.
Traditional carbon steel Chinese chef’s knives are available in Asian hardware stores. They are easy to sharpen, but they rust and will discolor acidic foods like onions and lemons. Ordinary inexpensive stainless steel, on the other hand, can dull quickly and is hard to sharpen. For years, I couldn’t find a good, functional all-purpose Chinese kitchen knife. That’s why I consulted many professional colleagues and Chinese chefs, and eventually we designed a high-carbon stainless steel blade, Martin Yan’s Ultimate Chef’s Knife, which I use on the Yan Can cook show. High-carbon stainless steel won’t discolor food and keeps a fine, sharp edge.
In some high-quality chef’s knifes, the end of the blade, called the tang (no relation to the Chinese dynasty of the same name!), extends all the way to the end of the handle and is held in place by three rivets. You can also find traditional knives with cylindrical wooden handles (which tend to loosen and crack over time). Test the balance of the knife and the comfort of the handle as you hold it. It should feel substantial, yet not so heavy that you have to be a bodybuilder to lift it.
Hold the knife in your writing hand (the Chinese call this the “chopstick hand”). Move your hand all the way up the handle so that your thumb is on one side of the blade and your index finger on the other side. Curling your index finger slightly, grasp the blade firmly between your thumb and index finger. This may feel a bit strange at first, but once you get used to it, you’ll find that grasping the blade in this way gives you much more control than simply wrapping all your fingers around the handle.
Use your free hand to hold the food in place, curling your fingertips under. Use the flat side of the blade alongside the first knuckles of your free hand, and as you slice or chop, slide your free hand along to guide the blade and keep it vertical. To avoid cutting yourself, never uncurl the fingers of your free hand, and never raise the blade higher than the first knuckle. Like I always say, “The idea is to move your fingers, not remove them!” Try not to wiggle the blade while cutting. Use a firm downward and slightly forward motion
Here’s my number one tip for keeping your wok happy and perfectly seasoned. Use it! Don’t banish it to that extra storage area behind the basement door. Hang it in your kitchen, where you’ll reach for it all the time to cook all kinds of food – not just Chinese or Asian dishes.
Holding the food and the Chinese chef knife firmly, cut straight down, using the knuckles of your free hand as a guide.
Stack a few slices, and use the slicing technique, cutting straight down through the stack to create sticks. For matchstick julienne, start with 1/8-inch slices, and cut them into 1/8-inch sticks. To shred food into fine slivers, begin by cutting paper-thin slices, then cut across them in the same way to create thin strip.
Line sticks up perpendicular to the blade, and slice straight down across them, creating cubes.
Start by cutting the ingredient into thin strips, then dice the strips. Hold the knife handle in one hand and, with the other, hold down the tip of the blunt edge of the blade. Using the tip as a pivot, raise and lower the blade in a chopping motion, moving it from side to side to mince everything evenly. Scoop up minced ingredients occasionally, flip them over, and keep chopping to ensure even mincing.
This technique is used for long vegetables, like carrots or zucchini. It makes attractive chunks and exposes more of the surface area of the vegetable. Hold the blade perpendicular to the board and cut straight down on the diagonal. Then roll the vegetable a quarter-turn, and cut straight down again at the same diagonal angle. Continue rolling and cutting in this way all along the length of the vegetable.
Used to cut broad, thin slices of meat or vegetables. Lay the food close to the edge of the board with the fingers of your free hand flat on top of it. Angle the Chinese chef’s knife so that it’s almost parallel to the board, slanting slightly downward. Move it slowly and carefully back and forth to slice the food, paying close attention to avoid cutting your fingers.
To crush ginger or garlic, place it near the edge of the cutting board, lay the knife blade flat over it with the blade facing away from you, and with the heel of your free hand, give the side of the blade a good whack, being careful to avoid the edge of the blade.
Use the blunt edge of the Chinese chef’s knife to tenderize meat by pounding it in a crisscross pattern. It’s even more fun to get out your aggressions by turning the blade on its side and slapping the surface of the meat.
Wash your chef’s knife after each use in warm, soapy water and dry it well. To preserve its handle, never soak a chef’s knife in water, and never put it in the dishwater. Store your knife in its own protected place (I use a magnetic knife rack),. not in a drawer where its edge might be dulled by knocking against other tools. To maintain a sharp edge, I recommend using a traditional knife sharpening steel .
The cutting is your knife’s partner and best friend. Whether you prefer one made of wood or plastic, the key is to use a board that’s big enough to hold what you’re chopping so things don’t go flying all over the place. To keep the board from sliding around, fold a damp kitchen towel in half and lay it under the board. Avoid cutting on hard surfaces such as marble – this is bad for your knife.
We have a built-in butcher block surface at home, but I still like to place a smaller wood or plastic board over it to preserve its surface. These smaller boards are also easier to store and clean. That’s especially important when you’ve been cutting meat, poultry, or fish. Some people like to reserve a separate board just for that purpose to avoid cross-contamination of other foods.
No matter what you’re chopping, it’s a good idea to scrub your cutting board with soap and hot water after each use and to clean it occasionally with a mild solution of bleach or baking soda and water. Vinegar or lemon juice can also be used to clean and deodorize a cutting board.– by Chef Martin Yan
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