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Kamelion

Chinese Cleaver / Cai dao / 桑刀 or 菜刀 – Carbon or Stainless Steel

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Kamelion

Dear Forumists,


next week a friend of mine travels to Hong Kong, and I of course see an opportunity to get my hands on a cleaver/cai dao (菜刀 or 桑刀) from Chan Chi Kee (CCK). I have pretty much settled already on the model, namely the kitchen slicer size two. Now comes my big anxiety issiue – carbon steel or stainless steel?

Bear with me, it will be a fairly long post, but I would love som help from you guys!

Other authorities
Fuchsia Dunlop writes a lot about cleavers in her books, and seems to alwas tend to carbon steel. In this article the brass mold on on this and this picture one hand seems to indicate stainless steel (but only if it is CCK), but for me the blade and the patina looks like carbon steel? Furthermore, in this article/picture she seems to at home use a complete stainless steel knife.

The article from The Spruce says that » Today, even well known cookbook authors such as Martin Yan and Eileen Yin-Fei Lo recommend blades that are stainless steel, or a combination of carbon and stainless steel.«

 

Mor pics from Fuchsia: This picturethis pic and this other picture – I would first have thought carbon, but it looks like the same knife and the patina isn’t really carbony?

Could it be, carbon cleavers are an older more romantic style, but that most cooks in reality uses good stainless steel now?

Food discoloration and metallic taste
I am somewhat familiar with carbon steel, having a Smart Wife Cleaver. The taking care of the knife and preventing rust is no issue to me, but what I fear with a cleaver maybe higher in carbon is what some people are mentioning – onions and cabbage getting a metallic taste from the steel. Is this something you CCK owners can confirm?

CCK reputation/quality of stainless steel?
As Chemicalkinetics mentions, and Paulustrious confirms, CCK are not primarily known for their stainless steel knives. However, both seem very happy with the quality of their stainless steel cleavers, finding them to hold the edge very good. Is the carbon steel, however, better, or is the stainless good enough?

What to get?
So there I am, having no idea which to get. Have you guys owned both sorts? What are your experience? I would love som help as I stand before this life-changing path selection.

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Carbon steel may well add an almost indetectible metalic tang, but if you're using a steel wok (or an iron frying pan) that's going to add far more an iron taste.

 

In any event, for Chinese cooking I'd say that that almost indetectible metalic tang is part of the traditional taste, and helps create the wok flavour.

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abcdefg
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So there I am, having no idea which to get.

 

That's an easy one. Buy a carbon steel Chinese kitchen knife 菜刀。 Ease of sharpening it to a really fine edge is the paramount reason for suggesting that over stainless.

 

I've been to the CCK store in Hong Kong. Did it last year as part of a food tour. Saw an old, shirtless man in the back sharpening new knives on a succession of whetstones. Lots of sweat and skill were involved. (I'll come back later and post a photo; must search around on an external hard drive.)

 

But it seems you already have an adequate knife. Why do you want another one? What kitchen task can you not now accomplish? What prep puzzle or problem will be solved by a new knife? I'm not unaware of the attraction of new gear for its own sake, however. And a well-made knife is a thing of beauty.

 

 

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Kamelion
1 hour ago, abcdefg said:

But it seems you already have an adequate knife. Why do you want another one? What kitchen task can you not now accomplish? What prep puzzle or problem will be solved by a new knife? I'm not unaware of the attraction of new gear for its own sake, however. And a well-made knife is a thing of beauty.

 

True, it is adequate, and even though—as you so precisely remarks—buying more knives would is fun, this would not be in accordance with the principle of the chinese one-for-all knife. However, the steel is not too good, and it is an mass market product. Furthermore, when cooking together with my girlfriend it could be nice to have a second knife.

 

 

1 hour ago, abcdefg said:

Buy a carbon steel Chinese kitchen knife 菜刀

Wich leads me to the next question. Which format would you choose as the allround cai dao, the „vegetable slicer“, or the „kitchen slicer“? To illustrate, here is a pic; the top middle knives are the „kitchen slicers“ (1102), and directly under them the „vegetable slicers“ with blackened blade (1303). Botch are carbon from cck. Carbon it will be, then.

 

1 hour ago, abcdefg said:

I've been to the CCK store in Hong Kong. Did it last year as part of a food tour.

Do you remember the approximate prices in the store? I have emailed them a few times, but they will not answer.

 

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abcdefg

 

On 4/6/2017 at 6:53 PM, Kamelion said:

Which format would you choose as the allround cai dao, the „vegetable slicer“, or the „kitchen slicer“? 

 

I must be careful not to overstate my qualifications on this subject. I have no special knowledge and am not even what one could call a real knife enthusiast or knife hobbyist. But I do use a Chinese cleaver-type cai dao 菜刀 every day of the week in my kitchen here in Kunming. I don't even have a western-style chef knife anymore, though I do own some back in the U.S.

 

So I can tell you what I personally like, but I don't really speak with the voice of authority: Just personal preference from a daily user. But I'm glad to show you what I have on hand and what I've found over the past ten years or so. Probably worth mentioning that I mainly cook for one or two people. Other tools might be more suitable for preparing larger amounts of food.

 

The knife I use over 90 or 95 percent of the time is this one. It is my automatic "go to" knife, and I pick it up without even giving it any thought. (Chopsticks are for size comparison.)

 

IMG_9563.thumb.JPG.81276216649de98b1765e7691ede42f6.JPGIMG_9565.thumb.JPG.748fb0b5cd442e16d98180e8c601df92.JPG    IMG_9568.thumb.JPG.fe94f1342810b9aa3473001aa5a524ea.JPG

 

It is old and beat up, but well balanced and extremely easy to use. I didn't buy it new. My landlord's mother gave it to me when I moved in. She also gave me this thick cutting board, made from a cross-section of tree trunk.

 

The blade is old fashioned carbon steel, and probably not the best in town. The knife holds an edge fairly well. I give it a few strokes with a steel every day prior to use and touch it up on a medium-fine whetstone about once a week. I think of the knife and the cutting board as both having some history; maybe tools actually can develop their own wisdom over the years and pass it on to a new user.

 

My landlord left behind two other cleaver-type knifes. One is all steel, including the handle. It's a type which is sold on the street and promoted as being nearly indestructible. One often sees vendors with an array of these spread out on the sidewalk to catch the eye of passersby while he gives a demonstration of whacking bricks or nails or thick wooden branches.

 

I don't like grasping its handle and find it kind of tricky to control, so I seldom use it. Mainly take it out when friends come over and we are cooking side by side. It is longer than my main knife.

 

IMG_9572.thumb.JPG.0efdbb592d9a8ae709bd2dfd5224a537.JPGIMG_9574.thumb.JPG.e92199acea57784d9aba1cda2155b775.JPG

 

 

And they also left me a short, heavy knife, for chopping. It has a thick blade; short and stout with a nice heft. Works well, particularly for chopping up a chicken Chinese style, where you just cut through the bones. The tang goes all the way through the handle.

 

IMG_9559.thumb.JPG.c26b81ba8c95a7d604820a58561b079b.JPGIMG_9558.thumb.JPG.a2975870bd92426f837c77d0d1cc2cd6.JPG   IMG_9560.thumb.JPG.1c726fa8f2d9939b9eb0ee896af31f13.JPG

 

Here those three are side by side.

 

IMG_9577.thumb.JPG.eb7bec0f1dde65b767320e3c54d71ae1.JPG

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then there is the meat knife I bought last year from a knife sharpener guy who came through my old neighborhood on a three wheeled bicycle cart with a "special." These guys sing out "mo dao 磨刀" real loud and you shout back from your window if you have a knife to be sharpened. He waits while you walk down the stairs, knife in hand.

 

These came in several sizes, all the same shape. I had visited the small "family factory" where they were made outside Chongqing during a trip to see the Dazu Grottoes several years back. This one cost 20 Yuan. It's a joy to use, though to be candid I often forget to take it out and instead slice meat with my old faithful universal knife, up above.

 

IMG_9583.thumb.JPG.26605c276173913db3f31d90bc0d0173.JPGIMG_9553.thumb.JPG.bfad5f2ca82aeb70fdb13a18426c843d.JPG

 

 

 

 

When I lived in a different apartment several years ago, I bought one of the knives that has a wider blade, such as the one in the top part or your linked illustration. It took a lot of concentration to deploy it properly, and frankly I never mastered it. Wound up giving it away.

 

Hadn't thought about knives in a long time. Interesting discussion. Thanks for starting the thread.

 

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abcdefg
23 hours ago, Kamelion said:

Do you remember the approximate prices in the store? I have emailed them a few times, but they will not answer.

 

No, sorry, I don't. I wasn't really shopping for a knife since I was traveling with only carry-on luggage. Also the things I use in my China kitchen will be given away or left behind when I leave. It's not practical to transport them back to the U.S. I have adopted a "disposable" frame of mind towards most of my China possessions.

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lips
15 hours ago, Kamelion said:

Looks interesting, but I cannot find that he makes any cai daos?

He does.  At least he sells them at his physical store.  He's in his eighties, and still does everything himself, so if he decides to retire the store will be gone.  Typically people wait 3 to 6 months, or more, for him to sharpen their knives by hand.  (The wait is considerably shorter for machine sharpening).  People from all over the world send him knives to be sharpened.  Knives sharpened by him can be dangerous to handle if you're not used to *really* sharp knives.

 

On 4/6/2017 at 5:58 AM, Kamelion said:

What to get?

文武刀――one thin one for slicing and one thick one for chopping.

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TriplePicto

Don't bother with the tool. 陳枝記is only a knife shop. 

What you need is the guidance from a Chinese chef.

It is totally different from Western or Japanese knife.

 

'One knife to rule them all' !

 

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Kamelion
9 hours ago, lips said:

He does.  At least he sells them at his physical store.  He's in his eighties, and still does everything himself, so if he decides to retire the store will be gone.  Typically people wait 3 to 6 months, or more, for him to sharpen their knives by hand.  (The wait is considerably shorter for machine sharpening).  People from all over the world send him knives to be sharpened.  Knives sharpened by him can be dangerous to handle if you're not used to *really* sharp knives.

 

Intriguing! Do you happen to know what the cost?

 

9 hours ago, lips said:

文武刀――one thin one for slicing and one thick one for chopping.

 

Thank you for this advice, I see that this is the way to go. But, do you by that thin one mean the thin big one, or the thin smaller one—or rather my question is about the length/width-ratio, more than the size? See this picture and post to understand what I mean:

 

On 2017-04-06 at 0:53 PM, Kamelion said:

Wich leads me to the next question. Which format would you choose as the allround cai dao, the „vegetable slicer“, or the „kitchen slicer“? To illustrate, here is a pic; the top middle knives are the „kitchen slicers“ (1102), and directly under them the „vegetable slicers“ with blackened blade (1303). Botch are carbon from cck. Carbon it will be, then.

 

I know, it is a matter of personal taste, but in this case I cannot try them out in the store myself. 

 

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Kamelion
2 hours ago, TriplePicto said:

Don't bother with the tool. 陳枝記is only a knife shop. 

What you need is the guidance from a Chinese chef.

It is totally different from Western or Japanese knife.

 

'One knife to rule them all' !

 

 

Thank you, TriplePicto. That is my goal, yes. But where I live I cannot find anything resembling this, and the one I have is really not nice to use, because of the steel. I am by this time, however, used to the cai dao as such, so I know what it is like to use it, compared to a western knife. I must say, I really like it, and I increasingly find myself cooking western food using the cai dao as well. It truly does rule. With the exception of chopping through bones, don’t you agree?

 

 

 

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abcdefg
12 hours ago, Kamelion said:

I am by this time, however, used to the cai dao as such, so I know what it is like to use it, compared to a western knife. I must say, I really like it, and I increasingly find myself cooking western food using the cai dao as well. It truly does rule. With the exception of chopping through bones, don’t you agree?

 

My chopping knife, pictured above, has a blade that is thicker at the front than at the heel, even though it's an inexpensive model. Makes it very efficient for cutting through small bones like pork ribs 排骨 or chicken. You can click on the picture (it will enlarge) and see what I mean. The cutting edge is also ground at a steep angle (as opposed to a gradual bevel.) Makes it less likely to be damaged by cutting hard things.

 

I can't tell if the ones in the picture to which you linked are built the same way. Would be interesting to know.

 

One issue with having a really powerful knife for cutting meat with bones, is that when you whack things hard, pieces fly all over and make a big mess in the kitchen. I generally prefer to let the butcher do the heavy work.

 

Quote

But, do you by that thin one mean the thin big one, or the thin smaller one—or rather my question is about the length/width-ratio, more than the size?

 

A cai dao with a very wide blade is harder to use. It's more difficult to maintain the proper angle and alignment while slicing. The cutting edge is simply farther from the axis of the handle, so it's a matter of physics.

 

The ones in the top of your illustration will require more practice to use with a high level of skill. I say this from having used both kinds quite a bit, though of course without any special professional training.

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abcdefg

Back to the chopper, since I think you need one of these as well as a thin vegetable knife if your goal is to "go Chinese" in your kitchen prep methods.

 

It is weighted towards the front, making it balance kind of like a hammer. Thick toe, narrow heel. And the blade has a short bevel, making it less likely to be nicked or otherwise damaged when it hits bone. Chinese spare ribs 排骨 are small, and this knife is very much up to the task of cutting them with one clean stroke.

 

IMG_9644.thumb.JPG.59a9548a0095e76334274286d68336c8.JPGIMG_9638.thumb.JPG.dc9665bc94ce798ed591d32ee922add9.JPG

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This particular knife was made in Giuzhou, and it's possible that Hong Kong knives are engineered differently. Would be interesting to know.

 

IMG_9640.thumb.JPG.1d1eb8c95c64948969ec05be1f5c0cb1.JPG

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Kamelion

@abcdefg Thank you very much for all your wisdom and knowledge. Your chopper is incredibly cute! The uppermost left knife in this pic is their chopper, weighted towards the front. Will try to buy one. If you youse your cleaver to mince meat, do you use the chopper or the cai dao?

 

You chopping board is also wonderful. I know that you traditionally in china often use a single one-piece of wood, cut from the middle of a tree, but that those often crack if you do not keep them moist. I would like rather to keep it dry and oiled. Yours seems to be from the side of a tree. Could you tell me more?

Does anyone else happen to know the prices at CCK in Hong Kong?

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If you use your cleaver to mince meat, do you use the chopper or the cai dao?

 

The cai dao for that.

 

I usually buy a chunk of meat at the market, the cut depending on what I plan to make with it. If it is pork loin, one of my favorites, I put the whole piece in the freezer for about an hour prior to dealing with it. Don't freeze it solid, just make it slightly more rigid and dense.

 

The two main ways meat is prepared here for a wok stir-fry is 肉片 (paper-thin slices) and 肉丝 (very small slivers.) Both of those are easy to produce with a cold piece of 里脊 pork loin and my basic, all-around cai dao. (The beat up one with the great edge.)

 

IMG_9563.thumb.JPG.d75d4ffaa1eb672af439a8a72453430f.JPGAlthough I typically just give this knife a couple strokes with a steel prior to use, if I'm cutting meat, I get out my medium-fine stone and touch it up on that at the start. It's difficult to make the tiny slivers 肉丝 or paper-thin slices 肉片 properly with a slightly-dull knife.

 

In much Chinese cooking, as I'm sure you know, one uses high heat and stirs fast for a very short time. So the meat needs to be prepared in such a way as to allow that to work out well. Cooks through, medium rare or medium in only a matter of seconds.

 

If I need ground meat, I have the butcher make if for me. Though a few of them do it with a pair of cleavers on a large chopping board. most use an electric grinder. I select the piece of meat and tell the butcher how much fat to grind with it. Most often I make it 70% lean and 30% fat; sometimes 80/20. It's a treat to watch an old time butcher make hamburger or mince with two flashing knives, one in each hand, cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth.

 

This chopping board is a transverse section of the trunk of a small tree (cut across the grain.) It's round, about 28 cm across (diameter) and about 5 cm thick. It is well oiled, and has been in the family (my landlord's family) for four generations, a couple hundred years. They kindly lent it to me when I moved in. I use it most of the time, but I also have a newer one made of bamboo. Bamboo cutting boards are plentiful and cheap here. One this size is available for a little over a dollar. (2 cm thick, 23 cm wide, 33 cm long.)

 

IMG_9656.thumb.JPG.7ff02a10036c28cd0f15f7a58dab8a16.JPGIMG_9658.thumb.JPG.8444b6f317574e48c3b2eca5a097c920.JPG

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I was new here, I "adopted" two butchers at my local wet market; or maybe better to say they "adopted" me. Persuaded them over time to teach me a few tricks. They also were very helpful in showing me how to sharpen my cleaver-type knives.

 

Some butchers here deal exclusively with pork, others only with chicken, and the Moslem 回族 butchers will only work beef. The goat 羊肉 vendors are kind of stand-offish. They always have a pan of fresh goat blood on for sale as well as one or two goat heads that have been singed over a fire.

 

IMG_20170409_111032.thumb.jpg.f80734efc96bc15b68fbf53bc5d2c5fc.jpgIMG_20170409_111101.thumb.jpg.29e6378b1093401f483f11c0ea2bea99.jpg

 

Heads and blood, lower right. Each specialist butcher has their own set of tools and techniques, of course with some overlap.

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Kamelion


@abcdefg Wonderful stories behind all your equipment; that is why I would like to get good stuff now, to use forever and pass to the next generations.

 

Your chopper also looks like carbon (but with some kind of lacquer), or is it stainless? 

 

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Kamelion

Does anyone have a clue what the Chan Chi Kee knives kost in the Hong Kong store? I tried calling them today, but since no one spoke english the phone call ended in confusion …
 
Since I am asking a friend to buy for me, it would feel god to have an idea.

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abcdefg

Kamelion, I think the chopper is carbon steel, with protective lacquer over much of it's non-cutting surface. As I'm sure you know better than I, carbon steel is actually an alloy with more or less carbon as well as trace amounts of other elements, such as manganese, silicon and copper. It would not surprise me to learn that the exact formula that each knife maker uses for any specific knife is a trade secret.

 

-----------------------------------

 

About getting a price estimate on one of the Chan Chi Kee knives in the store, I'll bet that one or another of the Cantonese-speakers here on this forum would help you out as a favor by just giving the store a local phone call. Try sending a private message to Flickserve and to Skylee. They are both usually helpful and they live in Hong Kong. TriplePicto is a newer user who speaks Cantonese and lives in Hong Kong.

 

 

 

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