Emboldened by a cleaver buying guide in the book, “Vietnamese Home Cooking,” I set off to Chinatown on Friday afternoon with the intent to buy a cleaver.
As a teenager, I worked a handful of sweaty kitchen jobs where I was taught proper knife skills and somehow, through the experience of chopping a hell of a lot of produce, developed an interest and appreciation for kitchen knives. Twenty plus years later and I find that I genuinely enjoy chopping vegetables and herbs, and as long as I am not slogging my way through a pile of teary onions, I can chop and chop all day long. It’s a meditation in motion.
I have always wanted a cleaver, but it was intimidation that kept me from getting one. What does one look for in a cleaver? Do I need to spend a lot of money? I did not want to to buy a cheapo cleaver because I worried that it would be useless and a waste of money. And I didn’t want to buy an expensive cleaver because I wasn’t sure if I would like chopping with one in the first place. Henckels makes a nice cleaver, but $75 is a lot of money to spend based on a flight of fancy.
In “Vietnamese Home Cooking,” author Charles Phan writes that there are different cleavers for different purposes. Big, hulking cleavers are used to chop through bones, while delicate, light-weight cleavers with a thin blade and rounded tip are used to chop vegetables and fruit. He prefers carbon steel over stainless, but says that it rusts more easily and is harder to maintain. Ultimately, what made me take the plunge was his assertion that an expensive, fancy cleaver is unnecessary, especially if you’re buying a bone cleaver. They’re just going to get bashed around anyway so you shouldn’t bother spending more than $20. I started out wanting a a vegetable cleaver that I could use day-to-day, but when I set eyes upon the spread of mangled cleavers in the book, I kind of had to have a bone cleaver, too. In fact, just give me all of your cleavers. You know how I am about rusty metal and wooden things… I may never need to chop with it, but it could easily earn back its cost as an intruder deterrent!
Long story short, I hovered over the cleaver selection at Tap Phong for what must have been 30 minutes, deliberating over the different styles and holding them in my hand, pretending to chop nothing. Don’t be afraid fellow patrons. It’s just me, a suspicious stranger wielding sharp and scary knives in the aisle of a busy restaurant supply store for an uncomfortably long period of time.
Finally, having Googled an assortment of brand names that yielded websites and reviews not written in English, I finally decided upon one very large, very scary, $20 carbon steel bone cleaver. I worried that the vegetable cleavers would be too cheaply made and I didn’t want to blow $8-20 just to find out. At the front counter I asked if they had any other vegetable cleavers for sale as all of the brand name knives are displayed behind the counter. The woman at the counter said they had the Henckels knife, “…but you don’t need that” and instead asked an older woman to come over and suggest the knife she liked best. I was surprised when she came back with the cheapest knife of the lot, only $7.99. I told her that I wanted something to chop vegetables and fruits and she said this one was great.
Three days have passed. I have not had a chance to try out the bone knife, but it does look very nice on its shelf. UPDATE: Later today I tested it out on the bones of a whole chicken that I had roasted over the weekend. I wanted t use what remained to make a lunchtime soup. As predicted, the cleaver was great. A little bit scary and heavy, but the weight is necessary for it to do its job. It’s a powerful tool. I’m starting to think that this book and a cleaver would make a really excellent holiday gift for someone who loves to cook and is especially interested in Asian food.
I have used the vegetable cleaver exclusively over the last three days. I did a lot of cooking and a lot of chopping over the weekend and I love it! It is light-weight and sharp. I have had no trouble getting that rocking motion going and managed to slice up a pile of shallots like nobody’s business. It feels natural and comfortable in my hand. It did a great job in finely chopping and making a chiffonade of fresh herbs. I like that I was able to scoop up a whole pile in one motion using the side of the cleaver. I can’t say how well an $8 cleaver will hold up over the long term, but given the cost, I don’t expect it to perform miracles. Now that I know how much I enjoy chopping with a cleaver I will likely invest in a brand name knife that will last for a lifetime once the cheap brand has had its day. Until then, it is working out surprisingly well!
Do you chop with a cleaver? Which do you like best?
ps. I will write again about the book later this week.