A Chinese cleaver or Chinese chef’s knife (Caidao) is a kitchen knife with a broad blade and a rectangular shape. The cutting edge is straight or slightly curved. The spine is thick, adding some extra weight to the knife. Usually, Caidao knives have wooden or plastic handles that hold a full tang.
Commonly, people use the term “Chinese cleaver” to address the Caidao. This misconception brought up because Chinese chef knives share the similar rectangular shape and weight as meat cleavers. The blade of a Caidao is also heavy near the tip, which Chinese chefs use to maneuver the knife in swinging, tapping, or pushing strokes. Nonetheless, the Caidao has a gradual bevel that can easily damage if you use it for splitting up bones. Chinese cleavers (Gudao) used for splitting bones have the same profile, but the blades are thicker, the bevel is sharper, and the handles are heavier.
However, a typical Chinese cleaver or Caidao is not a cleaver per se, and it’s not commendable to use it as one.
Caidao means “vegetable knife” and is primarily for vegetables. People also call it the Chinese chef’s knife or slicer. Some variations of this knife are the Gudao (“bone knife”) and the choppers. Traditional knives featured forged blades made with carbon steel and a single bevel. However, modern Chinese Caidao or Chinese chef’s knives come with stamped blades.
Types of Chinese Cleavers
Chinese knives consist of three general categories: Caidao, choppers, and Gudao. Each of these knives is suitable for specific purposes. Learn about them here.
Caidao — The Chinese Vegetable Cleaver
The Chinese vegetable knife is similar to the Western cleaver but serves other purposes. Primarily, a Caidao features a delicate and thinner blade. The knife profile is also light-duty and has a sharper edge, whereas the butcher’s cleaver is thicker and slightly dull. Caidao knives may have a similar shape to choppers, with less width in some cases. This type of Chinese knife may also resemble traditional Japanese Nakiri knives.
A “Chinese cleaver” (Caidao, slicer) is not suitable for splitting up bones. Using it to split bones will damage the gradual bevel of the knife. Instead, this knife is a general-purpose chef’s knife, like a Japanese santoku or French chef’s knife.
A Chinese vegetable cleaver is a versatile knife that you use in the kitchen regularly. Caidao will cut veggies, mince herbs and slice boneless meats with ease. It adapts to multiple cuisine styles, whether you enjoy Western or Asian dishes.
Chinese Meat Cleaver
The Gudao is the Chinese version of the western meat cleavers. Gudao means bone cleaver or bone chopper, and it does what the name suggests. This cleaver is similar in shape to the Caidao. However, the blades are thicker and heavier. A Chinese meat cleaver is also heavier, thicker, and wider than a chopper or dual-purpose cleaver.
Chinese meat cleavers are the equivalent of Western cleavers. In Asian cuisine, people typically use this cleaver to chop pork ribs and prepare lobsters or other hard-shelled seafood. This cleaver will also cut large chunks of meat, lamb, pork, and other cuts of meat with bones.
The effectiveness of a Chinese meat cleaver depends on the weight of the blade and your arm strength. A proper method to use this cleaver is to swing it down over boned meats. Sheer force and momentum allow the thick blade to split the bones and separate the meat with minimal resistance.
Chopper, or Dual-Purpose Cleaver
A chopper is the most common general-purpose knife used in Chinese cuisine. The shape of a Chinese chopper is similar to the Caidao and Gudao. However, choppers usually have a thick heel that tapers down to the point. In many ways, choppers are hybrid knives that offer the utility of a Gudao and the precision of a Caidao.
Choppers have thicker blades than the Caidao, but less width and weight than the Gudao. Primarily, the purpose of this knife is to slice, chop, and mince. You can use it to process vegetables and herbs quickly. Additionally, choppers are strong and can chop through soft bones. Cooks often employ the chopper to cut through the bones of fish and poultry with ease.
Mastering a chopper or dual-purpose cleaver can be a challenge. Ideally, you must start with a Chinese vegetable cleaver or Caidao first. The transition from a Western chef’s knife to a Chinese chef’s knife will be smoother. Plus, you will confirm whether you feel comfortable using Chinese-style cutlery before buying a more expensive cleaver.
Chinese Chef’s Knife (Caidao) vs Meat Cleaver (Gudao)
The biggest difference between the Chinese chef’s knife (Caidao) and the meat cleaver (Gudao) is the thickness. A Caidao knife has a thinner spine than a Gudao. As a result, Caidao knives are heavier. However, the cutting edge of the Caidao knife is usually sharper. Caidao knives sharpen at approximately 11-14 degrees, whereas the Gudao sharpens at 50 degrees (single bevel) or 25 degrees (double bevel).
A Chinese chef knife is suitable for slicing, chopping, dicing, and mincing. Nonetheless, the cutting edge is not strong to split bones.
The meat cleaver is better for chopping through bones. It will also cut through thick meat, and slice food with harder layers.
What is a Chinese Cleaver Used For?
The Chinese cleaver (Caidao) is a kitchen knife used to slice, chop, and mince vegetables, fish, and boneless meats. Additionally, the Caidao can slice strips of meat for stir frying.
Chinese cleavers cut vegetables and meats into thinner layers. The thin cutting edges guarantee clean cuts with fewer risks of tearing into the meat.
Mincing Herbs and Crushing
A Chinese cleaver can mince herbs quickly. It allows you to prepare flavored dishes by mincing herbs while preserving their juices. The flat and broader side of the blade will flatten garlic cloves and ginger over the cutting board.
Bench Scrapper or Spatula
The broader surface of the blade works as a bench scrapper or spatula. Use the broad blade to pick up chopped food from the cutting board to place it into a bowl.
Experienced cooks use Caidao knives as general-purpose knives, including for carving and precise work.
What to Look for in Chinese Chef’s Knife
These recommendations are mostly for the Chinese chef’s knife (Caidao). This particular knife requires specific characteristics like thinner and sharper blades to slice veggies effortlessly. Here’s what you should consider before purchasing one.
Most Caidao knives have a rectangular shape, whereas others have slightly rounded cutting edges. Both are effective for push cutting. However, Chinese chef knives with a minor rounded belly are the preferred option. This blade shape allows you to be more versatile. You can push-cut produce like onions and rock-chop smaller ingredients like herbs.
If you’ve only used Western knives and are more familiar with Western cuisine, transitioning to a rounded-belly Chinese knife will be easier.
Additionally, make sure that the spine is thick and flat. Straight spines allow you to secure a pinch grip comfortably. The added thickness adds weight to the blade, useful for making uniform cuts with minimal effort.
Some extra weight is good for a Chinese chef’s knife. Ideally, approximately 300g of weight should be good. Less than that, and the knife will lose effectiveness. You also don’t want a knife heavier than necessary. If you work at a restaurant and process food rapidly, you will feel tired quickly.
Knife Blade Size
Consider buying a Chinese chef’s knife with a 6-inch or 7-inch blade. Keep in mind that the blade length might also affect its weight. Thus, other knives with bigger blades might be heavier. This could be a detriment if you use the knife for hours. Anything between 6 to 7 inches is comfortable enough even if you have to chop or mince veggies non-stop.
Chinese chef knives are available with carbon steel and stainless steel blades. Carbon steel is prone to rust and requires thorough maintenance to preserve a fine blade edge. However, the material is easier to sharpen and can stay razor-sharp for a long time. Consider getting a carbon steel blade if you’re a serious cook at a restaurant or home. It will cut beef tenderloin and veggies into paper-thin sheets for quality recipes.
Stainless steel blades are more resistant to rust and less likely to chip. Still, this steel type is softer and may warp or get dull faster. I would recommend this material if you’re a casual cook without time to care for knives.
Another option is getting a knife made with a high-carbon stainless steel blade (combination of carbon and stainless steel). High carbon stainless steel blades are durable and resistant to rust. Minimal care is necessary to keep these knives in good condition.
Wooden handles are the ideal handle choice for Chinese chef knives. In particular, I would recommend a Pakkawood handle. This material is sturdy and resistant to moisture. Handles made with wood also provide a comfortable grip. If you chop veggies or slice strips of meat for stir frying in high amounts, you will feel less fatigue.
Plastic is another option if you’re not a fan of wooden handles. A plastic handle will last long and won’t have rust or corrosion risks. The finish is also non-slip to secure the knife in your hand. This material is not good-looking like wood, but still a good alternative if you don’t mind aesthetics.
Look for a cleaver or slicer with a full tang. These knives have the same steel of the blade running through the handle. As a result, you get complete control over the knife. This construction also makes the steel more stable and secure. Hitting the cutting board repeatedly while chopping veggies will not loosen or detach the blade. You can also apply pressure over the side of the blade to smash herbs safely.
A decent Chinese chef’s knife is $60. Some are more affordable, but the quality may be questionable.
Pro tip: If possible, get a hold of the knives before buying them. See how the weight feels, and if the handle fits well in your hand. Only buy a Chinese chef knife that is comfortable to hold in a pinch grip.
How to Use
The correct method to use a Chinese chef’s knife is in a pinch grip. Place the thumb and forefinger of your dominant hand on both sides of the blade, and wrap the handle with the remaining fingers. This technique will allow avid knife enthusiasts to use the Chinese cleaver for almost anything.
Place the tip of the blade over the food, and push the knife away from you. Press the handle to bring the blade downwards gently. The length of the cutting edge will slice through. Use this technique to slice onions, carrots, potatoes, and other vegetables.
Hold the knife firmly, and bring it down over the food repeatedly. The up-and-down cutting motion will turn larger produce into smaller portions for various dishes. Rock-chopping is another method if the knife has curvatures. Place the point of the blade over the cutting board, and move the cutting edge up and down following a lateral movement over the food.
Swing the knife in a quick, downward motion to hack through hard-skinned items like watermelons or daikon. The heel of the Chinese chef’s knife can also crack open coconuts and pumpkins with ease. Insert the heel, and wedge it. Then, twist the knife to split up the produce.
Use the side of the blade to press down on a head of garlic to smash it and remove the skin. Additionally, the wide surface of the blade can crack peppercorns, garlic cloves, and soft beans. This method allows you to turn these ingredients into a paste.
Turn the knife around and use the dull spine of the blade to tenderize boneless meat. This method also works to bruise lemongrass.
Use the side of the blade to scoop up chopped produce and transport it into a bowl or wok.
How to Care
Maintenance for a Chinese chef’s knife is similar to how you would care for a Westen knife. After each use, take a few minutes to hand-wash the cleaver. Then, wipe it dry immediately. Avoid using a dishwasher to clean the knife. Prolonged heat and exposure to moisture will affect the wooden handle. Don’t store the knife in a drawer either. Contact with other cutlery will dull the blade quickly. Instead, use a knife block or magnetic strip.
Consider getting a wooden, plastic, or rubber cutting board. Other materials will dull the blade. Additionally, use a honing rod to realign the edge of the blade after each use. Sharpening is relatively easy with a knife sharpener or whetstone (11-14°), and you must do it two or three times per year.