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A Comprehensive Guide to Traditional Chinese Kitchen Knives

June 30, 2023864 ViewskniveSource

In China, traditional Chinese cleaver is also known as cai dao or vegetable cleaver. One of the most common knife shapes of all is the Chinese cleaver in Chinese households. As well as Chinese homes and restaurants worldwide, kitchen knives are typically large and rectangular. Chinese cleaver has a well-deserved reputation for versatility in the kitchen, a Chinese chef will reach for again and again in daily cooking, the Chinese cleaver is the ultimate priority for them. It is a razor-sharp knife for cutting meat, fish, and vegetables in the traditional Chinese way. Chinese cleaver is less well known in the Western world but definitely no less versatile. This post is about the traditional Chinese cleaver (cai dao).

In this post, We’ll be distilling the basics of traditional Chinese kitchen knives, What you’ll learn:


A Quick Primer on Chinese Knives

There are two major types of knives you might find in a Chinese kitchen:

On the blade, there are 3 sections. Each has a different purpose.

The versatility of a Chinese chef knife

Even though it’s sometimes called a Chinese cleaver, this type of knife is much thinner than other cleavers that are designed to hack through bones or thick meats.

In Chinese, it’s called a cai dao (菜刀), which literally means “vegetable knife” if you split up the characters. (Also known as a “cai dao” in Mandarin.)

A Chinese chef knife is incredibly versatile, like a Swiss army knife without all of its extensions.

The power of a Chinese cleaver

This knife is meant for chopping through thick meats and bones.

Its construction is typically heavier and thicker, and the blade and handle are generally one continuous piece of metal.

With a meat cleaver, you always chop landing your blows with the root of the knife (closest to the handle).

Most chefs also will sometimes stick the belly of the knife in place, and then press down with his hands to further drive the blade through a thick piece of root or bone.

Appearance is not everything

A Chinese cleaver is a muti-task knife, but they actually come in a variety of sizes and thicknesses that are each tailored to a different range of tasks. Just because a Chinese cleaver looks like a cleaver doesn’t mean you can use it to chop bones. Heavier cleavers are designed for that, but the main function of the lighter cleavers – often called Chinese chef’s knives – is to cut meat and vegetables. Chopping bones with these lighter cleavers can ruin the blade. 

How to sharpen a Chinese chef knife

An overview of the main sharpening tools

There are three primary tools my dad uses to sharpen his knives at home and at the restaurant:

Notably, he doesn’t use any sort of electronic or machine sharpener, which would quickly ruin the blade.

Why do we sharpen knives?

It’s counterintuitive, but a sharper knife actually causes fewer injuries. Simply due to the law of averages, a sharper knife leads to fewer cuts, which lowers the chance of injury.

Also, you’ll cry less. When cutting an onion, if your knife is dull, you will damage the onion’s cell structure and release a chemical called “lachrymatory factor”, which makes you cry. A sufficiently sharp knife leaves cells intact and eyes dry.

What makes a knife dull?

You can imagine the blade of every knife as having tiny microscopic teeth (like the huge teeth of a serrated knife).

Your knife’s effectiveness depends on these teeth to be both:

Honing vs Sharpening Your Knife

Sharpening = New Teeth

Honing = Aligning Teeth

If your knife is dull, you always sharpen first, hone second.

One-Sided Bevel

Most chinese chefs prefers to sharpen his knife with a one-sided bevel.

This means that one side of the knife is sharpened at a 15-20 angle, and the other side is sharpened parallel to the stone.

if you’re holding the knife, the “palm” side of the knife is sharpened flat, and the “fingernail” side of the knife is sharpened at a slant.

With a one-sided bevel, slices of meat or vegetable will naturally fall out of the way, which helps chefs be more efficient when cutting lots of stuff.

How do you know what angle to sharpen your knife at?

Most Chinese chefs sharpens his knife based on intuition, but a great starting point is to go with a 15-20 angle. Whatever angle you’re going with, try to hold your knife at the same angle throughout the entire motion.

How often do you need to sharpen a knife?

In China, Most families sharpens their knives with a whetstone 3 to 4 times a year.

But most Chinese chefs use the whetstone every two days, and they use honing rod multiple times a day.

How do you test the sharpness of your knife?

Mose Chinese chefs uses his fingernails (like a boss), which was a little jarring to watch at first, but it actually is one of the most convenient and effective ways to test sharpness. 

You’ve probably seen people testing out their knives by slicing paper. However, this is actually pretty easy to do even with a fairly dull knife, whereas that same dull knife will glide across your fingernail.

I came across a very informative chart that quantifies “sharpness” with actual measurements, and the minimum sharpness it takes to perform certain tests.

This isn’t to say that paper doesn’t work as a sharpness test (it’s also very fun to do), but if you’re a knife, it’s a test that’s very easy to pass.

And practically speaking, as long as you’re careful, it’s a lot easier to use your nail than it is to find a piece of paper, especially if you’re a busy chef in a restaurant. 

Using a whetstone

The primary tool Chinese chefs uses to sharpen his knife is called a sharpening stone or whetstone, or mo dao shi (磨刀石) in Chinese.

If you’re interested in getting a sharpening stone for yourself, here you will find our complete range of sharpeners & whetstones for the knives

Most brands label their whetstones with one or more “grit” numbers, which mostly refers to the size of the abrasive particles in the stone. The higher the grit number, the smoother and sharper the finish. The lower the grit number, the quicker the knife’s material gets removed.

If your knife is dull or even damaged, generally you’d start sharpening your knife with a lower grit rating, and then you’d use a stone with a higher grit rating to get a more razor sharp edge.

Here’s an overview of what you’d do:

Adding water generally acts as a sort of lubricant for the friction that’s produced as we sharpen the knife against the stone. The water mixes together with the loose particles from the stone and knife to create a slurry, which helps to further polish the knife’s edge and sharpen the blade.

Most Chinese chefs think that in certain cases, the water helps keep reduce some of the frictional heat, which helps to avoid any potential warping that might occur. 

Using a honing rod

Known as a mo dao gun (磨刀棍), most Chinese chefs used a honing rod multiple times a day when they worked in restaurants.

There are a lot of different ways to do this, but with my dad’s one-sided bevel method:

One thing to highlight on most honing rods – the handle is slightly flared, so it helps protects your hands from getting cut if you move your knife too far down.

Using a dinner plate

If you don’t have a sharpening stone, you can also use the rough bottom of a ceramic plate or cup as a surface to sharpen your knife against.

Most Chinese chefs still prefers to use a plate sometimes because it’s so easy to grab and use.

Just like you would with a whetstone or honing rod, be mindful of the angles you’re holding and pushing the knife with.

How to cleaning & care a Chinese chef knife

Most Chinese chefs uses a sponge with some dish soap and wipes down each side of the blade and handle. The main concern here is just to avoid cutting yourself. Notably, They never using a dishwasher.

We highly recommend against putting your precious knives inside of them for several reasons.

By doing so, you create an unnecessary risk of injury, and it’s also just terrible for the knife itself. The wooden handle will eventually get cracked and waterlogged in hot temperatures. As for the blade, the detergents will dull the edges more quickly, and the metals are more prone to rusting. It’s also bad for your dishwasher, since the blade can cut into the rubber coating on the dish racks, which can also lead to rust.

In short, you should avoid putting in a dishwasher, including any metal that isn’t fully stainless steel, wood, anything with a hollow handle, and a lot more.

When cleaning and storing the cleaver, the main thing to consider is the protection of the blade. Cleavers should be stored in a suitable blade block where there is less risk of damage. For best results, clean the cleaver by hand in warm soapy water. And don’t forget to dry thoroughly – even stainless steel is not completely rustproof. Also, clean the blade immediately after working with acidic ingredients such as tomatoes.

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