Chinese cuisine has an extraordinary number and variety of regional dishes, and yet most of them can be prepared with just four highly versatile kitchen utensils.
Chinese people have always had a great appreciation for the written word as expressed in graceful calligraphy, and through the ages calligraphers required but a few essential tools, traditionally known as the “four treasures of the scholar’s studio” – the writing brush, ink stone, ink stick, and paper.
It is no exaggeration to say that these items, so essential to China’s rich literary and artistic traditions, form the backbone of Chinese culture. But no less important to the Chinese is their culture as expressed through cuisine, in regional dishes of an extraordinary number and variety. Despite their diversity, virtually all of them, simple or complex, can be prepared by using just the “four treasures of the Chinese kitchen” – the cleaver, chopping block, wok, and steamer.
How did so much come to be done with so little? The evolution of Chinese cooking tools and techniques has been deeply influenced by scarcity. For millennia, the vast majority of Chinese have spent their lives short of fuel, cooking oil, utensils, and even water. The result: they cut most of their food into small pieces and stir-fried it quickly to save on both fuel and the need for much cutlery, and they adopted four simple but versatile kitchen tools that have proved successful for centuries.
The versatility of the Chinese cleaver, or chopping knife, makes a Swiss Army Knife look like a simplistic toy. It can be used to cut, score, slice, shred, dice, mince, chop, crush, break, and decorate. It can also gut, clean, crack, and tenderize. All this and more are possible with an eight-by-four-inch rectangular piece of steel attached to a four-inch-long handle.
“When I first saw someone using a cleaver in Hong Kong, I was amazed,” says Michel Sram, a chef with long professional experience in European restaurants and hotels. “I saw this Chinese chef cleaning bones with a cleaver, and I thought ‘This isn’t possible.’ We have several special knives for cleaning. But with a cleaver, the bones were even cleaner than the way we do it in Europe.”
Actually, there are three kinds of cleavers, but the only significant difference between them is their weight. The blade is about the same size in all three, but its thickness varies. The heaviest cleaver is used for cutting through large bones, such as beef and pork leg bones.
But most kitchen work can be done with the middleweight cleaver. This can easily clean fish, prepare chicken, and handle smaller cuts of beef and pork, such as short ribs. It can also be used for readying vegetables and fruits for cooking, as well as preparing garnishes, although the light cleaver is often preferred for these tasks, as well as for julienne cutting and delicate slicing.
The cleaver’s cutting edge can be divided into three sections: the heel, at the end of the blade closest to the handle; the toe, farthest from the handle; and the long, main section in between. The heel is used primarily for rough dicing and for cutting through thicker vegetables. The toe has several uses, including slicing, cutting, scoring, and decorating. The main section of the blade is used for most slicing tasks, including julienne cuts, as well as chopping, fine dicing, mincing, and carving.
Today’s chefs are drawing on thousands of years of experience. For example, a text attributed to the Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi (莊子), who lived in the fourth century B.C., praises the skill of a cook named Ding, who handled the cleaver “in perfect rhythm” as though he were performing a complicated dance or keeping time to music.
Ding was quoted as saying of his skill, “A good cook changes his cleaver once a year because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his once a month because he hacks. I’ve used this cleaver for 19 year, and the blade is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone.” How so? Because Ding skillfully found the spaces between the joints of the bone, and invariably maneuvered the cutting edge through the spots of least resistance.
The top, unsharpened edge of the cleaver, its thickest part, also has several uses. Flip the blade upside down, and its long, blunt edge can break crustacean shells or pound meat to tenderize it. The flat faces of the cleaver can be used to crush garlic and spices, and act as a scoop to lift items off the chopping block. The whole unsharpened front edge of the blade, the part farthest from the handle, is used as a scraper to clean the chopping block at the end of each meal.
Other uses of the cleaver have also come down over the generations, such as whittling new chopsticks, sharpening pencils, shaving, and threatening customers who refuse to pay the bill. But the cleaver’s primary function keeps it on the chopping block ready to perform a huge variety of tasks as the compleat food processor.
Chopping blocks come in many sizes and shapes. The heavy, circular wooden ones used by restaurants are about four inches thick and 18 to 20 inches in diameter. Home kitchens usually have thinner, rectangular boards made of wood or heavy plastic.
Until the mid-1990s, Taiwan chefs preferred using solid blocks made from crosscut sections of ironwood. This tree is now protected, so blocks are imported these days, while many blocks are made from fir. More restaurants, especially in the larger hotels, have switched to large polyethylene blocks because they are easier to clean. But most chefs still prefer wood.
“There’s no thorough way to clean a wooden block, and the plastic ones save trees,” says Simon Ho, an experienced local chef. Nevertheless, he remembers with fondness the sound of cleavers making heavy contact with wood. When cleavers hit the big polyethylene blocks, they make a whacking sound, instead of the familiar deep thunk. It’s like comparing the whine of a line drive off an aluminum baseball bat to the splendid sound made by a wooden one.
How is the cleaver used with the chopping block? Hold the cleaver, with the index finger resting along the right face of the blade, and the other three fingers and thumb wrapped around the handle. The index finger helps maintain the correct angle of the blade when performing various tasks, and it gives a “feel” for the food being prepared.
The knuckle of the middle finger of the other hand should touch the side of the blade, acting as a guide. The correct cutting motion consists of repeatedly forcing the cleaver blade downward and forward. How long does it take novice cook to learn how to chop well? Chef Frank Liu says one year is about average. “I can tell a good chef by the sound of his chopping,” he says. “There’s a smooth rhythm to it.”
The versatile wok has been used in China for at least two thousand years, as shown by clay models buried in ancient tombs. (“Wok” is a Cantonese word now thoroughly established in English; the Mandarin word is guo [鍋]). Both a pot and a pan, the wok is used for stir-frying, deep-frying, braising, and steaming.
Round-bottomed with sloping sides, it was originally designed to rest on the circular walls of a primitive brazier. Woks for family use are usually 10 to 14 inches deep. Restaurant woks may be 20 inches or more across. They are made of iron, carbon steel, stainless steel, or aluminum, but the best are from iron or carbon steel because they hold intense heat and distribute it evenly. All blacken with use. The shape has remained unchanged for many reasons, including convenience and economy.
The smooth, even distribution of high heat is one of the wok’s most vital and distinctive features. For one thing, this allows a tremendous saving on fuel. Another great virtue is that when food is stewed in a wok, the liquid evaporates very fast. This is because the surface-to-liquid ratio is high, and the smooth curve of the sides allows heat to rise rapidly, smoothly, and evenly through the vessel.
And when food is tossed about during stir-frying, the sloping sides ensure that the contents fall back into the wok and not onto the stove. The shape also minimizes the amount of oil necessary for deep-frying foods, because just a small amount makes a pool at the bottom and goes a long way. The wok is excellent for boiling, and a steamer rack and a lid convert it into a steamer.
In stir-frying, the cooking method of choice for about three-quarters of Chinese dishes, the wok is heated and a small amount of peanut or vegetable oil is then poured in. When the oil is hot, the ingredients are added in order of their cooking times. Often, a piece of garlic or ginger is cooked in the oil to flavor it and then removed before the other foods are added.
Because the ingredients must circulate rapidly around the hot center of the wok, the best results are obtained with limited amounts. Therefore, if a dish contains many different items, the vegetables may be cooked together first and then removed from the wok. Next the meat will be fried, and when it’s almost done, the vegetables will be returned to the wok and reheated briefly with the meat.
All that’s needed to cook with the wok is a flat-bladed metal spatula for stirring, a bamboo-handled wire net spoon to scoop things out of liquids, a ladle, and a set of long chopsticks. The Chinese spatula is perfectly suited for the wok, especially for stir-frying. It is short and curved slightly to fit the wok’s sloping sides so food doesn’t slip underneath it.
Moreover, its leading edge is broader in order to scoop up the maximum amount of food with each stroke of the cook’s hand. The spatula also has a lip around the sides and back, which helps push food forward during stir-frying and hold food better when it is being transferred to a serving dish. The spatula is actually a wok “shovel” – it serves as spatula, scraper, spoon, and stirrer. Its shape shows that even secondary tools in Chinese kitchens are designed to be highly versatile.
Companion to the spatula is the ladle, a necessity for serving the soup that is part of every Chinese meal and for other dishes with sauces. The ladle also serves as a small mixing bowl for the cornstarch and liquid thickener that is added to many stir-fried dishes. The results possible from a wok and these few backup utensils are an impressive lesson in economy.
Bamboo has great functional value. Its strength and durability make it popular for constructing everything from tables and chairs to house frames and roofing. In the kitchen, its strong segmented stems make great handles for ladles and scoops. But one of bamboo’s most important uses has always been in making steamers.
Steamers, called zheng long [蒸籠] in Chinese, are made from thin layers of wood, narrow strips of vine, and – the key component – bamboo. The bamboo tops and bottoms of steamers are the most important parts because they direct and regulate the flow of steam. Steamers come in a wide variety of sizes, all designed to be stacked in layers over the source of steam, such as water boiling in a wok.
The most common-sized steamers at home and in restaurants are circular, and eight to ten inches in diameter. The steamers used for such items as Cantonese dim sum or snack foods may be as small as three and a half inches in diameter.
Whatever the size, steamers have the same basic construction, one that has remained fairly constant for centuries. The circular side is made out of four layers of a light, blond wood that is purchased in large thin sheets. These are cut into strips and softened by boiling them in huge pots, a process that makes it easier to bend them into the tight circles that form the steamer’s walls.
Four layers are used to give added strength to the main body of the steamer. (Very large steamers may have as many as six to twelve layers). The end of the outer layer is held in place by a double row of vine “stitching.”
The bottom of each steamer is a row of narrow bamboo strips reinforced by two other strips of the same material placed at right angles. This loose grid is lashed together with thin strips of vine, then fitted about one-quarter of the distance from the lower edge of the steamer frame. A raised lip made from two layers of wood inserted into the top of the steamer helps hold the grid in place.
The side of the lid is also four layers thick, and the top is made from a double layer of woven bamboo with a small woven vine handle in the center. The top surface is convex and reinforced underneath by wide, thick bamboo slats.
Even if used daily, steamers can last several years before needing to be replaced. The first parts to go are either the vine stitching or the top lips, which can become damaged over time by hurried stacking.
Dumplings usually come in servings of eight in an eight- or ten-inch-diameter steamer, each one called a long [籠]. For example, an order of three long will bring 24 dumplings in a stack of three steamers. As diners eat from the top layer, the ones underneath hold just enough heat to keep the dumplings hot without overcooking them.
Diners will notice that food items are rarely put directly on a steamer’s bamboo-slat bottom. Usually a lettuce or cabbage leaf – or perhaps thin cheesecloth – is placed over the slats before putting in dumplings or other foods. This way, food particles don’t adhere to the steamer’s slats or vine bindings, which means it can be used again without tedious cleaning.
A metal plate with holes for the steam can also be used, but it’s still best to cover this with a leaf of lettuce so the steam won’t puddle. Besides, a leafy vegetable adds as bit of flavor and aroma, and it’s also cost-effective – it means chefs can use kitchen trimmings in a constructive way.
Today’s “minimax” philosophy of using the minimum number of utensils for the maximum benefit in cooking actually has ancient roots in China. Give Chinese cooks a cleaver, chopping block, wok, and steamer, and they have virtually everything they need to prepare almost any Chinese dish. So want to start up your own restaurant? All that’s needed is the four treasures of the kitchen – plus a few simple tools and a pot to cook rice – and you’re in business.
- This article originally appeared in the February 2003 issue of Taiwan Business TOPICS (the inaugural Wine & Dine edition).