Before the 3,600 TV episodes, the two dozen cookbooks, or the many restaurants, Martin Yan was a guy who worked magic with a knife. A kid, in fact; he started his career at age 13 in an uncle’s restaurant in Hong Kong, prepping vegetables.
“In a Chinese kitchen, a chef’s knife is the most important tool,” says Yan. In a blur of action, he demonstrates the knife’s versatility for us, using it to smash, roll cut, shred, and much more. “This is the beauty of Chinese cuisine—even if you have the same vegetable, changing the cut gives you a lot of variety.”
In addition to making food prettier, traditional Chinese cutting techniques expose extra surface area, resulting in more flavor and texture and more even cooking.
“The right tools and a few basic skills—that’s all you need. And since you have to cook, you might as well enjoy it,” says Yan.
The Chinese chef’s knife Yan uses to cut vegetables looks just like a cleaver but is much lighter (a true cleaver is strong enough to cut through bone). Here are Yan’s tips for buying and using one. You can also use an 8-in. French-style chef’s knife.
- Buy. Look for high-carbon stainless steel, which is rust-resistant and holds an edge; a slightly curved blade; triple rivets so the handle won’t come loose; and a full tang (meaning the metal of the blade extends into and all the way down the handle, for strength). The knife should feel lightweight and balanced, with the center of gravity where you grip it.
- Use. Grip the knife on the sides with your thumb and first finger and the other three fingers under the handle. Plant the tip of the blade farthest from you and rock it downward and then forward.
- Keep it sharp. Set the part of the knife’s blade that’s closest to the handle against a rod-shaped diamond steel at a 15° to 18°angle. Pull the knife down and across the steel in an arc, all the way to the tip. Repeat several times on each side of the blade. Wipe clean.
When you’ve been using a Chinese chef’s knife for as long as Martin Yan, creating these basic cuts is effortless. In the Test Kitchen, our testers needed more concentration, but they quickly got the knack of the techniques.
Great for asparagus and carrots. Trim ends, then thinly slice on a diagonal.
Great for bell pepper, jicama, carrots. Stack parallel-cut pieces, or overlap thin slices, fanning them. Cut crosswise 1⁄4 in. wide or finer.
3-D: Great for onion. Trim curved ends. Halve lengthwise and thickly slice crosswise. Cut pieces on an angle crosswise. Flat: Great for zucchini. Cut across flat strips at about 45°.
Great for bell pepper. Trim curved ends, halve lengthwise, and seed to create 2 rectangles. Seesaw knife through each rectangle horizontally. Then cut into smaller shapes.
Great for ginger and garlic. Cut in small chunks, then mash by smacking with the side of the knife and pulling it sideways. For a fine mince, cut up the mash.
Great for carrots and zucchini. Trim ends. Cut across the vegetable on an angle, roll it a quarter turn, and repeat.
Great for celery. Trim ends. Angle the knife at about 45° and cut across the celery to make V-shaped slices 1⁄4 in. thick.
“One of the most important things for a stir-fry is to have everything cut uniformly, so it cooks evenly,” says Yan. Once you’ve done that, this fresh, lightly crunchy dish cooks in about 5 minutes. It’s great with noodles or rice.
“The ingredients here are healthy and simple, and each one contributes to the flavor profile and color contrast,” says Yan. The northern Chinese soup is versatile too; omit the chicken to make it vegetarian, or add fresh water chestnuts for more texture.
Recipe: Vegetable Egg Drop Soup