Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Essential Chinese Knife

Although technique is of primary importance, there are a few pieces of basic equipment used in cooking which will make your life much easier. Most of the items are inexpensive, will last for a long time, and are extremely versatile. One such item is the Chinese Cleaver.

This basic cutting tool can be used for chopping all kinds of foods, from the smallest garlic clove to the largest piece of meat. You can use the flat of the blade to smash ginger or scallions to release their fragrances, its spine for pulverizing meat to a paste, and held horizontally, the knife is perfect for transferring cut foods to the wok or serving dish. They can be made of stainless or carbon steel. If using a carbon steel knife, it must be kept completely dry and lightly-oiled to prevent from rusting.

A Chinese cook will usually have three kinds of : lightweight, with a narrow blade for cutting delicate foods, including vegetables; medium-weight, for general cutting, chopping and crushing purposes; and heavy, for heavy duty chopping. You can, of course, prepare Chinese food with a regular sharp knife, but a medium-weight, all-round cleaver, is incredibly versatile, and easy to use.

The one we have pictured is actually slightly smaller than the traditional Chinese cleaver, and is part of the Helen Chen Asian Kitchen collection. It is made of a high-performance stainless steel with a superb razor-sharp blade, and can be found at the Gourmet Fusion store. It is lighter than the traditional Chinese cleaver, making it more agile and less weighty.

If you are still wondering about the different cutting techniques used in Chinese cooking, here is a quick summary of the dicing and slicing that you will encounter in your recipes.

Diagonal Slicing
Angle the knife or cleaver at a slant and cut. This technique is used for cutting vegetables, such as carrots or scallions. The purpose is to expose more of the surface of the vegetable for quicker cooking.

This is simply cutting food into small cubes or dice. The food should first be cut into slices. Stack the slices and cut them again lengthwise into sticks, as you would for shredding. Then stack the strips or sticks and cut crosswise into evenly sliced cubes or dice.

This method is ideal for larger vegetables, such as zucchini, eggplant or squash. As with diagonal slicing, this technique allows more of the surface of the vegetable to be exposed to the heat. Start by making one diagonal slice at one end of the vegetable. Then roll it 180 degrees, and make the next diagonal slice. Continue in this way until you have chopped the entire vegetable into evenly sized, diamond-shaped pieces. This shape gives an attractive appearance to your dish.

This technique pierces the surface of the food to help it cook faster and more evenly. It also gives an attractive appearance to your end result. Use a cleaver or sharp knife, then make cuts into the food at a slight angle to a depth of about 1/8 inch. Do not cut all the way through. Make cuts all over the surface, cutting criss-cross, to give a wide diamond-shaped pattern. This works especially well when steaming whole fish, as it allows the heat to penetrate the thicker portions. When hot sauce is poured over the cooked fish, the flavor penetrates right through the flesh.

First cut the food into slices and then pile several slices on top of one another, and cut them lengthwise into fine strips.

To shred raw meat or poultry, first place the meat in the freezer for about 20 minutes, or until it is firm to the touch. Then cut it, against the grain, into slices and shred.

This is the conventional method of slicing food. Hold the food firmly on the chopping board with one hand and slice straight down into very thin slices. If you use a cleaver, hold the cleaver with your index finger over the far side of the top of the cleaver and your thumb on the side nearest you to guide the cutting edge firmly. Hold the food with your other hand, turning your fingers under for safety. Your knuckles should act as a guide for the blade.

Of course, if you are not feeling this adventurous, and just want a quick stir-fry without the authentic cutting techniques, you can always chop the vegetables in your food processor!

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