The 7 Best Chinese Chefs Knives
The Knife: A Universal Tool
This is partially due to a decree from Louis XIV after one of his ministers noted the correlation between deadly attacks and pointed, double-sided blades.
Millions of years ago, well before the emergence of modern Homo sapiens, members of the now-extinct Australopithecus genus were some of the first organisms to craft sharp tools from chips and flakes of rocks and bones. And while you might think that making blades out of rocks is an antiquated practice, keep in mind that modern surgeons still often cut with obsidian blades, as they can hold a noticeably sharper edge than carbon steel, helping wounds heal faster.
Blades were made of increasingly stronger alloys as technology allowed, including components like copper, bronze, and iron. Beginning in the Iron Age over four millennia ago, craftsmen began to develop highly effective ways to work metal, resulting in more durably forged equipment that lasted considerably longer. The introduction of additional metals eventually led to stainless steel, which doesn't shatter or rust anywhere near as easily as iron.
Powerful materials and efficient machining techniques contributed to knives becoming common household items, though it would take quite a while for short swords and daggers to evolve into something resembling today's kitchen knives. The European middle ages saw an incredible increase in the popularity of single-bladed knives, much like the butter knife. This is partially due to a decree from Louis XIV after one of his ministers noted the correlation between deadly attacks and pointed, double-sided blades. Halfway around the world, though, an entirely different style was already an important part of the culture, drawing much influence from ancient swordsmithing techniques.
While many people are familiar with Japan's rich traditions of blade production, it's actually most likely that their forging methods originated across the Yellow Sea, in China. For this reason, blade composition and construction are quite similar between Japanese and Chinese specimens, though not identical. There's a much wider range of Japanese options, and while Chinese chef's knives aren't quite as varied, they're arguably even more versatile.
What's So Special About Chinese Knives?
Modern knives generally fall into one of two categories. These two classes are often referred to as Western and Japanese knives, which is wildly misleading. A slightly more accurate system might separate knives into heavy vs light, or soft vs. hard blades. While the name is debatable, there are concrete differences between the two camps.
To combat this, heavy use of a German-made knife requires a honing steel within arm's reach, to keep your edge razor-sharp.
Heavier knives, originally modeled after German designs, generally have a somewhat curved profile, as well as a wider angle on the edge, and a thicker blade construction overall. One of the most important features about the so-called European style blades is that they're generally made of softer alloys than their Asian counterparts. Somewhat counter-intuitively, this actually makes German knives considerably more durable and versatile, because a tiny bit of flex goes a long way in preventing chips and cracks. A minor drawback of the more pliable metal is that the edges warp or curl, drastically reducing cutting ability. To combat this, heavy use of a German-made knife requires a honing steel within arm's reach, to keep your edge razor-sharp.
Asian blades are crafted from a significantly different blend of metals with considerably different characteristics. The chef's knives are exceptionally light and thin, with an especially slight honing angle of as little as twelve degrees on some high-end selections. Their stiffer and less tensile properties enable remarkably sharp edges — e.g., some chefs don't stop stropping until their eight-inch knife can shave hair. On the other hand, such sharpness calls for a lot more caution during use; you can't just hack away with an Asian knife the way you would with an old-school Solingen or a classic Sabatier. In fact, the steel, hardness, and potential sharpness of Chinese and Japanese knives are renowned around the world, and lend themselves well to maintenance using super-high-grit sharpening stones.
Whether sharpening or cutting, softer implements tend to be a bit more forgiving, and their increased heft offers more control to those who might not have years of kitchen experience. In general, Asian knives tend to be sharper, though only if they're properly maintained, and their slimmer profile helps them slide through food that a larger knife would smash or rip apart. It's important, however, to always work your knives by hand — never use a mechanical sharpener on a high-end knife. Doing so can cause excessive microserrations that may reduce a blade's effectiveness and overall lifespan.
Get Out The Chopper
Walk into a French, Japanese, or American kitchen, and you'll see dozens of blades of various shapes and sizes lining the walls. In Chinese homes and restaurants, however, it's far more likely that you'll see one tool doing the vast majority of the work. It is true that a lot of modern chefs prefer to stick to their primary knife, but the Chinese variety, known as the caidao, is specially constructed to add incredible multi-functionality.
In Chinese homes and restaurants, however, it's far more likely that you'll see one tool doing the vast majority of the work.
First of all, they look quite similar to Western cleavers in many ways. The two are almost nothing alike, though, and share almost no kitchen tasks whatsoever. For example, you should never use a high-hardness, Chinese blade for breaking apart bones. For everything that's softer than a winter squash, though, these choppers are perfectly suited.
Their characteristic rectangular profile is another very important feature. A relatively straight edge, plus an extra-wide and squared-off profile, make this type of knife excellent for nearly any size chop or dice — their very name, caidao, actually translates into English as "chopper". The extensive surface area turns the tool into somewhat of a handheld prep surface, as well, allowing skilled culinarians to process, separate, and combine various ingredients with just a couple flicks of the wrist. And because their alloys are so durable, they can take and hold the kind of offset edge that you need for ultra-precise cuts like the fine brunoise, one of the truest tests of a prep cook's skill.
Ultimately, a knife is only as good as the metal in its blade, and the chef who's using it. As long as you exercise caution around all sharp tools, get in lots of practice, and keep your knives in prime condition, they should realistically last for many years.