In Chinese cooking, food is cut up into bite-sized pieces in the kitchen, not at the table. (Imagine trying applying a steak knife to something while holding it down with chopsticks... not a pretty sight!) To handle the varied and essential cutting tasks in preparing Chinese food, there is only one solution--the Chinese cleaver.

Anatomy of a Chinese cleaver

  top edge            grip
+------------------+\----------\ handle
|                  +/----------/  end
|    broad         |
|    side          |
|                  |
  cutting edge

A Chinese cleaver has an ~3.5" x 9" blade, with a cutting edge, a dull flat top edge, and two broad sides. Depending on the type of cleaver, the cutting edge may be curved or straight. It is used, predicatbly, to cut things, from whole chickens to vegetables and herbs. The top edge can vary from 1/4" wide to 1/8", or even narrower. It is used to pound things--tenderizing meat or breaking up a head of garlic. The broad sides of the blade are good for smashing and flattening things like chicken slices or garlic cloves. They are also used to scoop up and carry cut-up items to the wok, or discards to the trashcan.

The handle of a Chinese cleaver is typically 3.5" long and consists of a grip and the blunt handle end. The grip is of course used to grip the cleaver, and is usually made of wood or metal. The blunt handle end is good for use as a miniature mallet, powdering peppercorns for example.

Types of cleavers

Chinese cleavers vary mostly in weight (heavier ones being useful for chopping bones, lighter ones for mincing vegetables) and curvature of the blade (rounded for rock-mincing, straight for long slices). A heavy-weight bone-chopping cleaver is 1-1.25 lbs. and is rugged enough for cleaving bones. A Chinese vegetable cleaver is lighter and thinner, about 3/4 lb.

Holding a cleaver

You can either hold a cleaver with all your fingers wrapped around the handle, or with a pinky and ring finger around the handle and your thumb and other fingers holding the blade. The former is good for powerful chopping, the latter for more precise work.


To slice an item horizontally (i.e., parallel to the cutting board), hold the item down with your middle three fingers and cut horizontally with the cleaver. Keep your pinky and thumb above the plane of cutting blade. Horizontal slicing is particularly easy with Chinese cleavers because of the large thin blade, which guides the cleaver into a straighter cut than normal chef's knives do.

To slice vertically curl the fingers of the hand holding the food under your knuckles. By pressing the side of the cleaver blade against your knucles, you get better control of the cleaver position and also protect your fingers from being cut.


Rock mincing is holding both ends of a cleaver and rocking it back and forth to mince something into very small pieces. Periodically, use the broad side of the blade to gather the food into a pile again. This is best done with a cleaver with a curved blade.

Precision mincing can be done by making slivers first and then cutting those crosswise.

Whack mincing is just what it sounds like--whacking your food with the cleaver repeatedly. It is particularly fun with one cleaver in each hand.


The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking by Barbara Tropp

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