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The Chinese cook’s knife

Le couteau des cuisiniers chinois 
Françoise Sabban

Abstracts

The tool used in Chinese kitchens to cut ingredients, whether professional or domestic, is of a single model: a wide, perfectly sharpened rectangular blade fixed on a handle. Difficult to use for a novice, it requires a real apprenticeship. But once this has been done, this cumbersome instrument, when compared to the knives used in French and Japanese kitchens, proves to be remarkably efficient. This tool is used to make a series of cuts of ingredients in very varied shapes using codified handling techniques. Cutting operations in the Chinese culinary system always carried out before cooking – with a few exceptions – are considered to be of equal value with the cooking process. It is often said that the use of chopsticks imposes cutting in Chinese cuisine, but this concerns several Asian cuisines. Chinese cooking professionals have developed a discourse on cutting, insisting on its role in revealing tastes, and incidentally on its positive role in digestion. It can nevertheless be suggested that the Chinese cutting system is a metaphor destined to visibly signify, even in the dishes, the extreme dexterity of the cook whose perfection of the craft can only be expressed in ephemeral works.

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Author's notes

N.B: The photos of the figures 2, 4-10 are taken from the book by SI Yi 2017[1981] (droits réservés)

Full text

1Some years ago, I was invited to a sumptuous banquet in a high-end restaurant of Zhenjiang in Southern China, a city that is famous for its balsamic rice vinegar. When I entered in the dining room, everything was already set and a gorgeous bouquet of flowers that decorated the table was amazing. As my companions and I began eating one delicious dish after the other, I noticed that one red flower was leaking, and that some red tears had dripped on the tablecloth. As I examined the flowers more closely, I was surprised to discover that they were not real flowers. Indeed, this arrangement had been carved using artificially colored material, which was in fact Chinese radish. I had already been delighted by a large decorative dish that was a peacock made of wonderful small pieces of various foods, such as vegetables, mushrooms, cooked meats, and eggs, all elegantly cut and painstakingly arranged (see fig. 1 for a similar dish). Even though I was not used to such luxury, this was quite normal for a formal welcoming banquet at that time. Even so, I could hardly believe that such a bunch of artificial flowers could look so real, and I was excited by this discovery. How could the cooks have created such a masterpiece?

2I already had experience with Chinese cutting and slicing techniques because I had taken a three-month-long cooking class in Taiwan. The faux flowers, however, convinced me that cutting, slicing, and carving processes included not only the sophisticated manual techniques I had studied before. In fact, they involved other meanings, which I wanted to identify and, if possible, clarify to better understand the nature of Chinese haute cuisine.

Figure 1.

A ceremonial dish for hors d’oeuvres based on vegetables and other cut ingredients, made by the winner of the Cold Dishes Sculpture Competition, organized by the South China Vocational School of Cooking in Guangxi, fall 2016

Screen capture F. Sabban (http://www.gxhnpr.com/​html/​xuexiaoxinwen/​7203.html, unsecured website, access on September 22, 2019)

Importance of cutting, slicing, splitting, and carving

3The focus of this essay is a specific tool, the Chinese kitchen knife, rather than its user or the physical gestures implemented in its use. This article is based on personal observations and on how Chinese cookbook authors explain cutting procedures and their meaning, primarily – but not exclusively – in the context of high-end Chinese cuisine.

4As F. Dunlop (2018) suggested to better grasp the specificities of this uniquely Chinese tool, I will for some aspects compare them with Western – specifically French – culinary traditions, especially concerning cutting and slicing. One of the first skills mastered by a cook is the cutting and chopping of basic ingredients. Of course, vegetables must be peeled before being cut, and the next step is to carve them into the desired shapes. It is the same for meat, fish and other foods that must first be cleaned before being cut accordingly. In professional French cuisine, one must generally cut certain ingredients before cooking them and often cut them again after cooking, especially whole-cooked poultry or other whole-roasted meats, such as lamb. Afterwards of course eaters will cut them again in order to be able to eat them properly. Some specific vegetable cutting and slicing methods are used to simplify the baking process and make the ingredients appear more appetising and harmonious in the dishes. The importance of cutting is therefore deeply rooted in aesthetics.

5In the Chinese tradition, the techniques used are much more complex. Their results have no real equivalent in the French tradition. A big difference in Chinese haute cuisine is that cutting of all the ingredients must be done before they are cooked. Only for some specific dishes, such as Beijing duck, a professional cuts them after cooking, but even in these cases, the dish is presented to the customer ready to be eaten with chopsticks and without the help of a table knife.

6Generally speaking, one considers that cutting and cooking are the heart of the Chinese culinary process (Zhang 1979: 77). Upon closer inspection of a professional Chinese kitchen, it becomes obvious that cutting and cooking processes associated with seasoning are equally important for creating an elaborate dish. Theoretically, in professional kitchens, these two operations are strictly separated into two nearby spaces. In general, cooks who deal with the fire (the cooking process) turn their backs on those who prepare the dishes for them, and the cook who cuts does not approach the fire. Dealing with the fire for the final step of the culinary process is the highest position in the professional kitchen hierarchy. Before becoming such a chef, a Chinese cook must learn a great deal, especially regarding how to properly cut each ingredient according to its specific nature (raw, cooked, hard, soft, etc.) and each recipe’s individual requirements.

7In French professional kitchens, work is also strictly organised in a quasi-military manner, which is reflected in the vocabulary: the team of cooks is called a “brigade” in French. In brief, at the head of the kitchen, there is a master chef, and under this chef are several stations, each with a responsible cook who deals with various French cuisine specialties, such as fish, roasted meats, or desserts. In the kitchen apprentices are assisting the cooks in performing a set of basic culinary operations. Among various procedures they prepare ingredients to be cooked, but not exclusively. Therefore, the peeling, cutting, and slicing of ingredients is part of a variety of necessary activities that must be performed before cooking takes place. Although they are critical, these preparatory operations are conducted with knifes, blenders, grinders, and other tools not especially distinguished in the culinary process: they count inasmuch as they are a part of the whole.

The Chinese knife: A single tool

  • 1 See the link for photos of the various knives used in Chinese, Western, and Japanese kitchens for a (...)

8Perhaps the most striking feature of Chinese cutting operations in the professional culinary process is the use of a unique type of knife, called by the generic term dao which first meaning is “blade”, so it can also refer to any type of cutting instrument, such as weapons for example. In Chinese restaurant kitchens, every kind of cutting, from the smallest to the largest, is done with this utensil. Additionally, various knives of the same type are used depending on the nature and quality of the material to be cut. Heavier knives are used for chopping or slicing meats and bone, and lighter knives are used for vegetables. Although each knife is unique, they are always about the same shape and size, and all are quite sharp1.

9When first learning to use the Chinese kitchen knife, it seems difficult to cut something with such a cumbersome tool, which does not seem suitable for simple cutting compared to other types of knives used in, say, Western or Japanese kitchens.

10However, after a period of apprenticeship, it works perfectly. Each part of the knife – mainly the handle, spine, blade, cutting edge, and point – is used in a specific way. Also, worth mentioning is the cook’s wooden block, on which all cutting is done. It is usually a thick slice from the trunk of a tree. The knife and block make an inseparable pair (fig. 2).

11In everyday cooking, a variety of cutting tools are used: the ordinary Chinese knife described above, as well as all kinds of kitchen modern slicers, such as the Japanese ‘Benriner’ – a wonderful mandolin – which is quite practical for slicing certain vegetables.

Figure 2. A Chinese knife and its wooden block

Figure 2. A Chinese knife and its wooden block

How to use it

12Before tackling the uses of the Chinese kitchen knife, it is useful to recall the existence of a specific knife of the Chinese butcher’s shop whose shape resembles it but which is nevertheless different, and thus suggests other uses. See following photo:

13“He doesn’t know how to hold a knife” is a Chinese saying used to describe a person’s lack of cooking ability (Lee 1970: 9). In fact, it is not so easy to hold a tool correctly. Because it is often difficult to describe a manual technique using words, only practice is effective. Drawings and videos seem more appropriate than words, but even with film, it can be difficult to understand a technical process if the student does not know its significant points. For the Chinese knife, the most basic principles are how to handle the knife, how to move the knife, and how to use two hands to achieve precision cutting.

141) There are three ways to hold the knife correctly, including how the hands and fingers must be positioned on the handle and the blade (fig. 4, 5, 6 & 7). A third position is used to cut with the blade moving parallel to the block (fig. 7). Other ways of holding the knife are inadequate (fig. 8).

Figures 4-7. The correct ways of handling the knife

Figures 4-7. The correct ways of handling the knife

Figure 8. The bad way of handling the knife

Figure 8. The bad way of handling the knife

152) The way to move the knife depends on the desired results and the nature of the ingredient to be cut. The knife can be pulled, pushed, or simply rocked vertically. It can also be used horizontally and at an angle.

163) For each type of operation, the other hand and fingers follow the movement to facilitate cutting and avoid injuries. When the fingers are bent behind the blade, they have a guiding role. This positioning guides the knife, ensures that the cut pieces will be the right size, and ensures that cuts will be regular.

The range of the various cuts and their arrangements

17Before use, the knife must be razor sharp (Lee 1970: 9). It should be able to slice a sheet of paper, as is often shown in videos on Chinese cooking techniques.

18In the Chinese culinary process, cutting does not mean cutting an ingredient into small, unrecognisable pieces before cooking, as Westerners often think. It is sometimes said that about 200 cutting shapes exist in Chinese cuisine. Although this number is a bit of an exaggeration, there are many such shapes, and each has its own designation in the Chinese language (Si 2017). In addition, these sometimes vary according to local dialect (Pengtiao jichu zhishi 1981: 117). They constitute a cutting system wherein various shapes are characterised by the way the knife is handled and applied.

19The most commonly used shapes include slices (pian ), pieces (kuai ), julienne (si ), strips (tiao ), segments (duan ), dice (ding ), grains (li ), mince (mo or ni ), and flower-knife shaped pieces (huadao kuai 花刀块). Of course, the actual shapes designated by these generic terms are much more nuanced and complicated. For clarity, I will use the example of slices, as they are described in many books on Chinese cooking techniques.

20To make slices, as with other shapes, the cutting method depends on whether the ingredients are hard or soft. The knife is operated vertically with hard ingredients such as raw cucurbits and radishes; it is pushed, pulled, or rocked like a saw with relatively soft ingredients, such as meats. Of course, slices can be more or less thick, and they can have various sizes, depending on a recipe’s requirements. The slices are theoretically identified and named according to their shapes, which include the following: fingernail slices (zhijia pian 指甲片), willow leaf slices (liuye pian 柳叶片), elephant’s eye slices (xiangyan pian 象眼片), crescent moon slices (yueya pian 月牙片), comb slices (shuzi pian 梳子片).

21Slice shapes are peculiarly prolific, and each can be converted into one or two other specific shapes. For example, the most unexpected shape – the flower-knife-[shape] (huadao 花刀) – can be sculpted into various shapes, such as wheat spikes, straw made rain capes (!), shark fin and litchi. These forms are not designed to imitate abstract geometrical figures, but natural or manufactured objects.

22Just as there are rules for cutting, there are also rules for combining the various ingredients to create a dish. These rules are quite complex because, in a way, the perfect harmonisation of colours, perfumes, flavours, and shapes – the goal of an accomplished dish with an emphasis on taste – greatly depends on the arrangement of the cut pieces for cooking. At the same time, the ingredients must correspond with, complement and contrast with each other. This is quite difficult. For example, depending on the recipe, a dish’s various ingredients must be of the same shape or, conversely, they must contrast each other through their different shapes. The objective depends on the type of dish. In a simple vegetable dish, the ingredients usually must be of the same shape, but their colours must contrast. If a dish is a mix of vegetables with a main ingredient like meat or fish, there are fixed rules, according to the recipes, that determine the association between them. For classic and well-known recipes, there is no possibility of innovation regarding the necessary ingredients’ associations. Cooks must learn and demonstrate these basic principles.

The cutting system in Chinese cooking: theory and practice

23Cutting operations in professional Chinese cooking constitute a rational body of fixed techniques that results from a set of practical knowledge. Today, such techniques are taught in professional and technical schools, but in the past, they were learned through apprenticeship. This is why Chinese cooking is a form of high cuisine – in other words, a professional technique practiced by specialised, trained cooks. Even though China and Chinese kitchens have undergone many changes since the economic reform of the 1980s, these techniques are still taught today in professional Chinese cooking schools, as they represent one of the basic tenets of Chinese culinary processes. In the technical cooking manuals that have been recently published in China one can find descriptions, explanations and drawings of the various cutting techniques used in professional cuisine. But to be effective, cutting techniques must be explicitly taught and reproduced after having been mastered. In this way, a cook is like a pianist who must practice every day before being able to perform a concert. Of course, in very large restaurants, grinders and mixers can also be used to process large quantities of meat into ravioli fillings or other specific dishes, but the Chinese knife remains one of Chinese cuisine’s fundamental tools.

24The knife and its cutting techniques are the domain of the cook. Cutting is done in the kitchen, especially in restaurants, and no cutting instrument is used at the table, which is a peaceful place dedicated to eating. The kitchen and dining room are two spaces that, in theory, do not overlap. The cutting of a Beijing duck by a cook in the dining room in front of clients, often tourists, is a rather recent innovation in that it began after the 1980s. Before, the duck was cut in the kitchen out of client’s view and then served. The same observation can be made about a new trend concerning the kitchen of some fashionable restaurants in China where it is possible to observe the working cooks through large bay windows separating the kitchen and the dining room. This probably is an inspiration of a global model.

25In theory, only a single knife type is required for Chinese cooking. A single but versatile multi-functional knife dao saves resources; it reduces the number of kitchen tools and requires kitchen space. Apart from cutting, some parts of the knife have other uses: for example, thanks to its large blade, the Chinese kitchen knife can also be used to squash vegetables or meat when necessary, as in the common “spicy cucumber salad”. The cooking process itself benefits from the same economy of instruments. Theoretically, cooking requires only one type of saucepan, a wok, for every dish. This is a bit excessive because sometimes other – but very few – cutting tools or other pots, such as region-specific pots, are also used. However, the versatility of Chinese cooking tools is, without a doubt, a characteristic feature of this culinary tradition.

The objectives of cutting

26For cookbook authors, the specific cutting system used in Chinese kitchens can be explained by the rules of the Chinese food system and their understanding by consumers. For these authors and the professional cooks, several factors help to understand the interest of cutting: the use of chopsticks, and the highlighting of tastes and textures of dishes. A final reason mentioned is to aid digestion, but this objective seems to be secondary. The preparation of Chinese dishes is closely linked to how they are eaten. Therefore, the first explanation given for the necessity of cutting ingredients into small pieces is generally the use of chopsticks and the fact that there are no knives at the table. However, this is also true for other Asian societies that use chopsticks.

27The most important explanation is that, for gastronomic reasons, cutting food into small pieces facilitates the expression of flavours thanks to better penetration of seasonings into the ingredients (Zhang 1979: 78-80; Chinese Cooking 1983: 15). Specific cutting methods also make this penetration easier. A good example is the “flower-knife-[shape]” (huadao 花刀) cutting method for cuttlefish. The cuttlefish is superficially and finely cut in regular lines that form a grid, then cut into strips called “wheat spikes” so that when the pieces are put into the hot wok, their flesh shrinks and becomes as a kind of flower that can easily absorb the seasonings (fig. 9 & 10). Furthermore, specific cutting methods’ shapes permit a better understanding and identification of textures, and they often facilitate digestion because small pieces are easier to chew than big ones.

Aesthetic, perfection and playfulness issues

28Besides the concrete goal of making food products perfectly edible and even delicious to the taste, there are other goals in the activity of the Chinese cook that combine aesthetics, perfection and playfulness. The aesthetic qualities of Chinese culinary cutting methods are strongly supported by Chinese cooks and other food professionals. However, what kind of beauty are we speaking of? Is it only beauty for its own sake, as in a painting, or should this beauty be a goal related to the fact that it is created in the context of eating, which is ephemeral? In fact, the beauty resulting from the various shapes of the cut ingredients and their arrangement in a dish is part of a general system that is aimed at stimulating eaters’ senses, especially the sense of taste. It has its own grammar and vocabulary, which are appropriated, internalised and mastered by Chinese cooks, and the results are naturally transmitted to the eaters. From this perspective, cutting can be considered as a true art that produces textured sensations and arouses the perception of taste.

29Here it is not only about beauty, but also about the perfection expected from the art of cutting. The perfect cutting of ingredients in this culinary process is a kind of ethical question that stems from a long cultural tradition internalized by cooks so that it has become spontaneous and natural. I recently bought a book in China on the practical Chinese art of cutting in cuisine. I was surprised to discover that the first words of the very short preface quoted three famous sayings from the Analects of Confucius: “He didn’t dislike having his rice finely cleaned, nor to have his meat finely minced; […] he did not eat that which was not properly cut. The name of Confucius is not mentioned in that preface excerpt, as though everyone – or at least every reader of this kind of book – were aware of the Confucian’ sayings. Indeed, everyone likely knows these Confucian recommendations that define the conformity of the Sage to ritual obligations of his time. Therefore, the perfect cutting of ingredients in this context is a way to represent the cook’s great skills and professional accomplishments. Furthermore, it provides a more concrete and lasting representation of tastes that vanish just as quickly as they are appreciated.

30Lastly, perfect cutting is part of the inherent playfulness that permeates Chinese cooking. Chinese cooks demonstrate their peculiar talents when, for example, they playfully pull pasta dough with their two hands into very thin spaghetti or even vermicelli in front of clients or when, blindfolded, they cut pieces of meat on a balloon.2 The decorative dishes sometimes presented on the table for banquets – even the artificial flowers carved from radishes that surprised me so much – are also part of this unique achievement-oriented entertainment. However, it must be specified that the tools used for this kind of decorative dishes are a sculptor’s set and not the traditional Chinese knife, the hero of this article! The astonishing role of the Chinese professional knife is marvellously illustrated in the prologue of Ang Lee’s film Eat Drink Man Woman – Master Chef Chu!3

Conclusion

31I once wanted to buy an ordinary knife in a small shop in Shanghai. As I was a foreigner, the shopkeeper, after looking at me, asked, “Is it for cutting fruits” which seemed like a strange question for me. However, I realised later that, for her, the word “knife” (dao) referred first to the Chinese kitchen knife, so I needed to be more precise in my demand. I did not want a cooking knife, but a pocketknife to cut some fruits and other things of little importance.

32This reminded me that it is impossible to stab someone with this kind of knife, as it is easy with a dagger, the weapon that is often used to kill an enemy in popular historical Chinese fictions. Of course, it is possible to attack somebody with a Chinese kitchen knife, but it has to be used in a different way, often from behind to wound the back or the neck. The injuries are different but can still result in death. Thus, in the Chinese mind, the Chinese kitchen knife cannot be considered a weapon like an ordinary knife except when it is diverted from its normal use. It is a professional tool.

33In conclusion, I would say that the kitchen Chinese knife, given its uniqueness and many uses, represents in itself an allegory of culinary art that must be considered as a whole, as a closed system in the field of Chinese crafts and culture. The cook’s work, which is intended to attract the consumer’s attention through the beauty and harmony of the various ingredients in the dishes, is perhaps a way of symbolising the cook’s creativity and skill, which is ephemeral by definition (Sabban 1995: 246). The aesthetic aspect of today’s globalised haute cuisine dishes can likewise be interpreted as a means by which the chef can capture the imagination of gourmets to stimulate their sense of taste and demonstrate perfect mastery of the art.

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Bibliography

Chinese cooking.1983. Beijing : Zhaohua Publishing house.

DUNLOP F. 2018. “The Chinese cleaver is the only knife you need. It does the job of a whole set of French chef’s knives”, The Economist : August 22nd. [https://www.1843magazine.com/design/built-to-last/the-chinese-cleaver-is-the-only-knife-you-need, access on September 26th 2019].

LEE G. (LI Yz). 1970. The wok. Concord California : Nitty Gritty Production.

SABBAN F. 1995. “Esthétique et techniques dans la haute cuisine chinoise”, in F. Blanchon (ed.) Asie III Savourer, Goûter : 237-247. Paris : Presses de l’Université de Paris-Sorbonne.

SI Y. 2017. Daogong jiyi [Knife skills]. Hangzhou : Zhejiang kexue jishu chubanshe.

Pengtiao jishu zhishi. 1981. Beijing: Beijing chubanshe.

ZHANG Qj. 1979. Pengtiao yuanli [The good arts. Theory and culture of cooking, by Constant C.C. Chang]. Taibei : Xin Tiandi shuju.

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Notes

1 See the link for photos of the various knives used in Chinese, Western, and Japanese kitchens for a comparison: Shijie san da chudao xiangjie http://www.jiangrencknife-nshuo.com/cangjingge/2019-01-29/1814.html, accessed on September 22, 2019.

2 See, for example, this video excerpt; accessed on September 23, 2019. http://v.qq.com/x/search/?q=%E6%B0%94%E7%90%83%E4%B8%8A%E5%88%87%E8%82%89%E4%B8%9D&stag=txt.playpage.vppdesc (unsecured website).

3 See the film’s trailer; accessed on September 22, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8uYVYhox2Rw

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List of illustrations

Credits Screen capture F. Sabban (http://www.gxhnpr.com/​html/​xuexiaoxinwen/​7203.html, unsecured website, access on September 22, 2019)
URL http://journals.openedition.org/aof/docannexe/image/12817/img-1.jpg
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Title Figure 2. A Chinese knife and its wooden block
URL http://journals.openedition.org/aof/docannexe/image/12817/img-2.jpg
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Credits Screen capture from a website, F. Sabban: https://shopee.tw/​product/​501409863/​12904966442?utm_source=an_16136160000&utm_medium=affiliates&utm_campaign=-&utm_content=4a4d30776c337742586246416239357158583568----&af_siteid=an_16136160000&pid=affiliates&af_click_lookback=7d&af_viewthrough_lookback=1d&is_retargeting=true&af_reengagement_window=7d&af_sub_siteid=4a4d30776c337742586246416239357158583568----&c=-, access on October 19, 2021
URL http://journals.openedition.org/aof/docannexe/image/12817/img-3.png
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Title Figures 4-7. The correct ways of handling the knife
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Title Figure 8. The bad way of handling the knife
URL http://journals.openedition.org/aof/docannexe/image/12817/img-8.jpg
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URL http://journals.openedition.org/aof/docannexe/image/12817/img-9.jpg
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Title Figure 10.
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References

Electronic reference

Françoise Sabban, « The Chinese cook’s knife », Anthropology of food [Online], 15 | 2021, Online since 31 December 2021, connection on 27 January 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/aof/12817 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/aof.12817

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About the author

Françoise Sabban

École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (UMR 8173), sabban@ehess.fr

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Anthropologie of food est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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