The Basics of Chinese Knives (中式厨刀知识)

An introduction to how to use, sharpen, and care for Chinese knives

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In this post, I'll be distilling the basics of Chinese kitchen knives and the lessons my dad has learned over his 50 years as a Chinese chef.

What you'll learn:

  • A quick primer on Chinese kitchen knives
  • How to sharpen a Chinese chef knife
  • How to make sure your knives last a lifetime
  • And much more

We'll be using video clips from our father-son interview on knives, as well as our various recipe videos. Click into the videos for more visual and detailed explanations.

Let's get started!

A Quick Primer on Chinese Knives

There are two major types of knives you might find in a Chinese kitchen:

  • A Chinese chef knife
  • A Chinese cleaver

On the blade, there are 3 sections. Each has a different purpose.

  • Root - dōu gān 刀根 (closest to the handle)
  • Belly - dōu tóuh 刀肚 (the middle of the blade)
  • Tip - dōu jīm 刀尖 (furthest from the handle)

The versatility of a Chinese chef knife

Even though it’s sometimes called a Chinese cleaver, this type of knife is much thinner than other cleavers that are designed to hack through bones or thick meats.

In Cantonese, it’s called a choi dōu (菜刀), which literally means “vegetable knife” if you split up the characters. (Also known as a "cai dao" in Mandarin.)

A Chinese chef knife is incredibly versatile, like a Swiss army knife without all of its extensions.

  • Cutting: You can do everything from julienning vegetables to jointing chickens.
  • Scooping: My dad often uses the blade to scoop and move chopped ingredients around.
  • Crushing: My dad uses the side of the blade as a blunt surface to crush garlic or create purees.
  • Tenderizing: My dad often hits pork with the dull back of the blade to soften meat up.

My dad's particular chef knife is about 40 years old, which speaks to how well my dad takes care of his stuff as well as the durability of the knife. It's made of stainless steel, with a beautiful wooden handle.

He uses this knife 95% of the time, replacing an entire set of kitchen knives. There are a lot of great Chinese chef knives out there, but here is the exact knife my dad uses.

The power of a Chinese cleaver

This knife is meant for chopping through thick meats and bones.

Its construction is typically heavier and thicker, and the blade and handle are generally one continuous piece of metal.

With a meat cleaver, you always chop landing your blows with the root of the knife (closest to the handle).

  • Chopping with the root of the knife keeps your knife in one piece.
  • Let's say the blade is 8 inches long. If you were to chop bones with the tip of the knife as opposed to the root of the knife you place ~8X the amount of reactive force and stress on the handle and on your hands, eventually breaking the handle.

My dad also will sometimes stick the belly of the knife in place, and then press down with his hands to further drive the blade through a thick piece of root or bone.

My dad's particular cleaver was made in Jiangmen / Kongmoon, a city in Guangdong Province which is famed for its high quality knives.

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find the exact brand and model online, but it's made of stainless steel.

How to sharpen a Chinese chef knife

An overview of the main sharpening tools

There are three primary tools my dad uses to sharpen his knives at home and at the restaurant:

  • The whetstone
  • The honing rod / steel
  • The dinner plate

Notably, he doesn't use any sort of electronic or machine sharpener, which would quickly ruin the blade.

Why do we sharpen knives?

It’s counterintuitive, but a sharper knife actually causes fewer injuries. Simply due to the law of averages, a sharper knife leads to fewer cuts, which lowers the chance of injury.

Also, you'll cry less. When cutting an onion, if your knife is dull, you will damage the onion's cell structure and release a chemical called "lachrymatory factor", which makes you cry. A sufficiently sharp knife leaves cells intact and eyes dry.

What makes a knife dull?

You can imagine the blade of every knife as having tiny microscopic teeth (like the huge teeth of a serrated knife).

Your knife's effectiveness depends on these teeth to be both:

  • Present
  • Aligned

Honing vs Sharpening Your Knife

Sharpening = New Teeth

  • Sharpening means that you're actually removing a relatively significant amount of material from the blade to produce a new sharp edge. This is usually done less frequently.

Honing = Aligning Teeth

  • Honing is like giving your knife some braces. It's more of a polish that maintains sharpness. It does remove SOME material, but not nearly as much as running your knife against a whetstone.

If your knife is dull, you always sharpen first, hone second.

One-Sided Bevel

My dad prefers to sharpen his knife with a one-sided bevel.

This means that one side of the knife is sharpened at a 15-20 angle, and the other side is sharpened parallel to the stone.

This is a lot more clear in the video, but if you're holding the knife, the "palm" side of the knife is sharpened flat, and the "fingernail" side of the knife is sharpened at a slant.

With a one-sided bevel, slices of meat or vegetable will naturally fall out of the way, which helps my dad be more efficient when cutting lots of stuff (he used to cut 40-50 pounds of meat every day).

How do you know what angle to sharpen your knife at?

My dad sharpens his knife based on intuition, but a great starting point is to go with a 15-20 angle.

To estimate this, Kenji López-Alt has a wonderful explanation of this in his video on how to sharpen a knife:

  • Take the width of the knife, divide it by 3 or 4, and lift it up by that distance.

Whatever angle you're going with, try to hold your knife at the same angle throughout the entire motion.

How often do you need to sharpen a knife?

At home, my dad sharpens his knives with a whetstone 3 to 4 times a year.

When my dad used to work as a chef, he'd use the whetstone every two days, and he'd use his honing rod multiple times a day.

How do you test the sharpness of your knife?

My dad uses his fingernails (like a boss), which was a little jarring to watch at first, but it actually is one of the most convenient and effective ways to test sharpness. 

You’ve probably seen people testing out their knives by slicing paper. However, this is actually pretty easy to do even with a fairly dull knife, whereas that same dull knife will glide across your fingernail.

I came across a very informative chart that quantifies "sharpness" with actual measurements, and the minimum sharpness it takes to perform certain tests.

  • Paper: knife starts tearing paper at 1 micron edge (considered dull)
  • Fingernail: knife catches on a nail at 0.7 micron edge (considered a working edge)

This isn't to say that paper doesn't work as a sharpness test (it's also very fun to do), but if you're a knife, it's a test that's very easy to pass.

And practically speaking, as long as you’re careful, it’s a lot easier to use your nail than it is to find a piece of paper, especially if you’re a busy chef in a restaurant like my dad. 

Using a whetstone

The primary tool my dad uses to sharpen his knife is called a sharpening stone or whetstone, or "mòh dōu sehk 磨刀石" in Cantonese.

If you’re interested in getting a sharpening stone for yourself, here's a great starter.

Most brands label their whetstones with one or more “grit” numbers, which mostly refers to the size of the abrasive particles in the stone. The higher the grit number, the smoother and sharper the finish. The lower the grit number, the quicker the knife’s material gets removed.

If your knife is dull or even damaged, generally you’d start sharpening your knife with a lower grit rating, and then you’d use a stone with a higher grit rating to get a more razor sharp edge.

Here's an overview of what you'd do:

  • Wet the whetstone - Depending on the stone you get, either splash some water on it or fully submerge it in water. This helps "lubricate" the stone.
  • Flatten your stone with.. a flattening stone. This ensures that your whetstone's surface is even. (note: my dad didn't do this during our interview)
  • Sharpen - For my dad's one-bevel method - hold one side of the knife at a 15-20 angle and push it back and forth across the stone. Flip the knife over and lay it flat.
  • Sharpen again - Depending on how dull or sharp your knife is, you might want to switch to a stone with a higher grit rating (or just flip your stone over if it comes with two grits), and repeat the process.

Adding water generally acts as a sort of lubricant for the friction that’s produced as we sharpen the knife against the stone. The water mixes together with the loose particles from the stone and knife to create a slurry, which helps to further polish the knife’s edge and sharpen the blade. 

My dad was also saying that in certain cases, the water helps keep reduce some of the frictional heat, which helps to avoid any potential warping that might occur. 

Using a honing rod

Known as a mòhdōugwan 磨刀棍, my dad used a honing rod multiple times a day when he worked in restaurants.

There are a lot of different ways to do this, but with my dad's one-sided bevel method:

  • Hold the rod in your dominant hand, hold the knife in your other hand.
  • Repeatedly run the edge of blade across the rod, holding the slanted-bevel side of the knife with a more pronounced angle than the flat-bevel side of the knife

One thing to highlight on most honing rods - the handle is slightly flared, so it helps protects your hands from getting cut if you move your knife too far down.

Using a dinner plate

If you don't have a sharpening stone, you can also use the rough bottom of a ceramic plate or cup as a surface to sharpen your knife against.

My dad HAS a sharpening stone, and still prefers to use a plate sometimes because it's so easy to grab and use.

Just like you would with a whetstone or honing rod, be mindful of the angles you're holding and pushing the knife with.

How to clean a Chinese chef knife

My dad uses a sponge with some dish soap and wipes down each side of the blade and handle. The main concern here is just to avoid cutting yourself.

Notably, he is NOT using a dishwasher (for different reasons - I think my parents don't use a dishwasher because they're stereotypically frugal Asian parents.)

I highly recommend against putting your precious knives inside of them for several reasons.

By doing so, you create an unnecessary risk of injury, and it’s also just terrible for the knife itself. My dad’s specific knife has a wooden handle, which will eventually get cracked and waterlogged in hot temperatures. As for the blade, the detergents will dull the edges more quickly, and the metals are more prone to rusting. It’s also bad for your dishwasher, since the blade can cut into the rubber coating on the dish racks, which can also lead to rust.

Serious Eats has a great article with an extensive list and explanations of things you should avoid putting in a dishwasher, including any metal that isn’t fully stainless steel, wood, anything with a hollow handle, and a lot more.

How to raise a family with Chinese knives

As a Chinese immigrant, my dad used these two knives to raise our family, put us through college, and give us a good life.

Over 50 years as a restaurant owner and a full-time chef and father, I'm not exaggerating when I say he's cut over 100 tons of meat and vegetables in his lifetime.

I will forever be grateful for all of his sacrifices and years of toiling so that I could live an easier life.

This blog/article is my way to honor my parents, and a celebration of their legacy and epic journey of making something of themselves here in America. It's a privilege to share with you, and I'm excited to pass it down to our kids one day!

Thanks for reading!