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Monday, July 4, 2016

Lessons in the kitchen - keep a trusty knife

Someone who recently went to Japan told me that a friend of hers had asked her to pick up a Japanese knife for him, one that was specially made for slicing meat. After visiting several shops that specialize only in knives (Japan being world famous for its knives and Samurai swords!), she decided that choosing a knife is a very personal matter. You have to see if its blade suits your slicing style, and feel if it fits well in your hand. And so she told him that he’d better choose the knife for himself. Me, I just use a cheap, old Chinese chopping cleaver for just about all the cutting, slicing and chopping that I do.

Growing up, we had a full-time maid who took care of household chores as well as did all the cooking.   Even after she left when I was about 12, my mother ruled the kitchen and produced dinners most nights on top of holding down a job. For someone who didn’t even know how to boil rice when she got married, my mother became an accomplished cook who could churn out delicious meals. In my family, we would say that she had “the touch” in the kitchen, able to make a simple fried egg taste awesome. I don’t know what kitchen skills I picked up from her because she didn’t exactly teach me consciously, but I like to think that I have absorbed some lessons.

In every Chinese kitchen, a must-have tool is the cleaver. Many cooks use it to chop meat, of course, and nothing beats it for hacking at bones and mincing meat efficiently. But in my household, we use it almost exclusively to cut, chop and slice just about anything edible. Because of my mother’s influence, I use it to slice meat, smash and chop garlic and julienne carrots. The only time I use a smaller paring knife is when I’m peeling onions or shallots, and fruit.

I’ve had the cleaver I use for years and it’s traveled with me wherever I’ve set up home. It’s not the sharpest knife around, and it has a dent at one end of the blade from some kitchen incident that I no longer remember. It was probably a cheap purchase from some kitchen supply shop and it's definitely not some fancy make. It has a nice heft to it and fits nicely in my hand. It’s like my trusted partner in the kitchen, something I take for granted and sharpen only once in while on the back of a porcelain bowl. There’s no fancy knife sharpener in my kitchen either.

I did decide to purchase an expensive German-made cleaver a few years back, thinking that sharper would be better. After a few days’ use, I almost sliced the top of my middle left finger with it while chopping tomatoes. After months of recovery which necessitated micro-surgery, I promptly gave away the knife and resorted to my old cleaver.

My son, B, has also taken an interest in cooking and keeps a well-stocked kitchen. He uses a variety of knives and can’t understand why I only use my cleaver. Like I said, using a knife is a personal preference. I was recently at a friend’s house in Melbourne where I was helping to chop garlic and slice vegetables. Like me, my friend also prefers to use a cleaver, but hers felt alien in my hand. It was extremely sharp and was of an agreeable weight, but I still didn’t feel comfortable using it. My own cleaver my be old, blunt and nicked but it has served me well and I wouldn’t exchange it for any newfangled or branded knife. Ever.

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