Using The Chinese Cleaver
A Chinese cleaver must be honed very sharply before use and one should have a suitable cutting board on hand.
The Styles of cutting foods for Chinese cooking include slicing, dicing, shredding and mincing. It cannot be stressed enough that students must exercise safety in the use of the Chinese cleaver. A dull cleaver or knife will cause accidents as the cook will have to work too hard at slicing anything. A sharp knife will also cause accidents, if not held properly.
To hold a cleaver properly for cutting, one should take his right hand (or left hand, if left handed) and get a firm comfortable grip on his cleaver. The other hand should be free to hold or move the food as it is being cut. If a food, such as a potato, is round, it is best to hold it firm on the cutting board and with your free hand cut the potato directly in half. Lay the flat side down on the cutting board and continue slicing. By creating a flat surface, a round food is prevented from rolling, thereby lessening the chances of an accident.
There are two types of slicing styles in Chinese cooking. The first is straight slicing and the other is diagonal slicing. There should be a rhythm of motion involved in slicing foods and this may be achieved by the novice cook with practice. For slicing, insert the forward blade of the cleaver into the food. Your free hand should hold the food onto the cutting board. Press down toward the back part of the blade, slice. The motion should be forward to back. Use your free hand to push food up to the knife blade, keeping the fingers tucked in. The blade should be kept as close to the cutting board as possible. Repeat slicing motion until all food is cut. This slicing motion is done with ease. Great pressure need not be exerted on the knife. If you are using great pressure on your knife then you are cutting with unnecessary effort or else the knife is dull. Usually the novice cook does quite well until he gets to slicing the end piece of the food, then it is better to go slower to finish off the job.
The main point that must be emphasized for wok cookery is that the food should be sliced as uniformly as possible. This is to allow like foods to be cooked at the same time. If some slices of a like food are thick while others are medium or thin, then the thin slices will be undercooked. So strive for uniformity in cutting.
Meats, especially beef, should be sliced across the grain of the meat. This is to prevent the meat from becoming "tough" when it is cooked. The most difficult type of meat for novice cooks to cut is beef. It also is the easiest to overcook and render "tough." For anyone who has difficulty in learning to cut beef, it might be better to use a thin sharp blade knife (like the 1 1/2" cleaver). Lay the beef flat with the muscular or long fibers perpendicular to the cutting board. Insert the forward blade of the knife across the grain of the beef. Take your free hand and lay the fingers over the slice of beef that you wish to cut. Slice slowly towards yourself. You can feel the thickness of your beef slice. Try to slice your beef about 2x1/2" in length and breadth, and about 1/8" to 1/4" thick. Some beginning wok cooks are afraid of holding the beef with their free fingers. This is incorrect as it will cause either accidents or result in coarsely, uneven cut beef. If you are initially afraid of the knife, do the cutting very slowly until you gain more confidence. The finished cooked dish will be the reward for your patience.
Diagonal slicing is usually performed on cylindrical or semi-cylindrical vegetables such as celery, bok choy, beans, carrots, etc. It can also be performed on other vegetables or meats to give a more attractive effect to the finished cooked dish.
Diagonal sliced vegetables have a larger cut surface area to be exposed for rapid cooking in the wok. By having this advantage, vegetables can be thoroughly cooked in a minimum of time and yet retain its bright natural colouration. Vegetables are also more nutritious cooked this way as a minimum of vitamins and minerals are lost in the cooking process.
The only difference between diagonal cutting and straight cutting is that the knife is held in the hand so that it can cut the food at a 45' angle. The same motion as in straight cutting is employed. Most beginning wok cooks do not hold their foods so that the knife can cut it at a 45° angle. They have a tendency to hold it as for straight cutting because they are afraid of the knife. Again it must be emphasized that one should practice this cutting technique slowly at first. Speed will come as one gains experience.
Dicing food means that it must be cut into cubes of uniform size. Decide on what size you wish your cubes to be. If you are stir-frying food in a wok, the maximum suggested size that a cube should be is about 3/4". This is so that the cubes can be cooked through without prolonged heating.
In dicing foods, it is best to cut strips or slices, depending upon the shape of the food, the desired width of the cube. Slice these strips or slices into square strips. Lastly cut these strips or slices into cubes.
Shredded food means that it has been cut into the shape of sticks. Depending upon the food, one may shred it into very fine sticks or coarse sticks. If a food requires lengthy cooking time, it is well to shred it finely. The less cooking time required for the food, the coarser the sticks may be.
In shredding foods, one first straight slices the food. Stack several of the slices on top of one another. Straight slight through the stack in the same width as the slice.
Mincing foods is a requirement that all Chinese cooks must know since so many native Chinese dishes require mincing. Raw meat is perhaps the most difficult food to mince finely.
Before mincing meat, remove and discard all tough connective tissues from it. Coarsely dice the meat into 3/4" cubes. Add cubes of onions or whatever that is to be minced with it. Take your 4" Chinese cleaver or your heavy duty Chinese mincing cleaver and chop the cubes with a straight rhythmic up and down motion. Use the blade of the cleaver from time to time to consolidate the mass of meat together as you are mincing it. When the meat forms a mass, it is minced. Examine it to see if it is as finely minced as desired. If not, continue chopping until it meets your requirements.
There are some other practical uses for you Chinese cleaver. The blade of it can be used for transporting cut foods either into a plate or directly into the wok from the cutting board. The Chinese cleaver can be turned sideways so that the blade can act as a mallet for pounding meats flat or for crushing cloves of garlic or ginger. The handle of it can be used for grinding or pulverizing salted beans or peppercorns. Like the wok, the Chinese cleaver is a multi-use implement.