What scared you as a child? Was it clowns at the circus? Monsters under the bed? That scene in Return to Oz where the witch takes her head off and screws on a new one? (How was this a children’s movie??)
For me, it was chicken.
More specifically, the sound of my mom cutting a whole chicken into pieces. It startled me so much that I required a heads up before she set to work, much as a parent might need to warn a child before a booster shot: “This will be unpleasant, but it’ll be over soon.”
If you use a chef’s knife or a pair of kitchen shears to dispatch your poultry, this may be confusing. But my mother took apart her chickens with a Chinese cleaver, removing the breast and legs and then sectioning the thighs and drumsticks into smaller pieces, chopping through the bone. The thwack thwack of hefty steel meeting cutting board could be heard even over my afternoon cartoons, making me jump.
A cleaver is still her tool of choice, and not only for meat but also for vegetables. “Growing up, we had a small knife for fruit and then a cleaver for everything else,” my mom told me. She likes the ease with which the heavy, large blade smashes garlic, slipping it out of its skin, and flattens ginger for soup so that more surface area is exposed. Unlike with a Western chef’s knife, this doesn’t require pressing down on the flat side of the blade with your palm. My mom just slams the broad side of the cleaver down with a satisfying, startling thud, like Gallagher smashing a watermelon. The wide blade also makes it easy to transport the vegetables she just diced to her pot or pan. No reaching for a bench scraper or trying to balance an entire chopped onion on the side of a chef’s knife—just scoot it all onto the cleaver.
If you honed your knife skills using a German or Japanese-style Western chef’s knife, it may initially feel awkward to chop scallions or mince garlic using a cleaver; instead of a gliding elliptical motion, a cleaver calls for a steady, rapid up-and-down movement. But even if you don’t fully convert, consider keeping one on hand for specific tasks. It’ll make quick work of prepping tough fruits and veggies like corn cobs, butternut squash, and pineapples. If you’re slicing pork shoulder for a stir-fry, a cleaver’s broad blade will give you the thin pieces you need for optimal marinade absorption. And how does anyone cut a melon without a cleaver?
The specific Chinese cleaver my mom (and everyone else in our family) uses is this affordable, wooden-handled model by Dexter. It’ll last ages, and, my mom told me, she never had to sharpen it! I expressed skepticism. “Oh,” she reconsidered. “Maybe Dad did it. Still a great knife though.”
The cleaver does it all: