April 20, 2022 5 min read
Or: It’s Hip to Be Square. Chinese-style Cleavers Are Versatile, Multipurpose Knives for Every Chef and Homecook
People tend to rely on one main tool to do most cutting jobs in the kitchen: the chef’s knife. From slicing meat to chopping vegetables to mincing herbs, a good chef’s knife can do it all. When it comes to Japanese kitchen knives, the two most common shapes for that do-everything tool are the gyuto and the santoku. But there is another choice for a chef’s knife, which is less well known in the Western world but definitely no less versatile. This blog post is about the Japanese version of a Chinese chef’s knife: the chuka bocho (中華包丁).
Full disclosure: I’ve got cleaver fever, and so a Chinese chef’s knife is the main style of blade I use at home. Yup, I’m biased towards those big, beautiful hunks of metal. Consider yourself forewarned that people who get on the chuka bocho train might find themselves wanting more than one...
Chuka bocho literally means “Chinese kitchen knife” in Japanese. The tall, rectangular blade shape looks similar to a Western meat cleaver, but the construction is quite different. Whereas a meat cleaver is thick and tough for smashing through bones, a chuka bocho is thinner and sharper for general purpose kitchen use. The Japanese chuka bocho is a Chinese-style chef’s knife, but it has some key differences from its Chinese-made counterpart.
At first glance a Chuka Bocho may look similar to a Japanese Nakiri, but it's a much bigger knife!
Just as a gyuto is a higher performance version of a Western chef knife, a chuka bocho is the harder, sharper version of a Chinese chef knife. The difference is the steel. Japanese knives get sharper and stay sharp longer than other types of knives, because the steels used are much harder. The tradeoff is that Japanese knives are more delicate. So, if a Chinese-made cleaver is like a monster truck, a chuka bocho is more like a Cadillac Escalade or a Porsche Cayenne.
In Greater China and Chinese households around the world, cleaver-like knives are the primary—if not only—knife found in the kitchen. There are many variations on the theme, and Chinese-made cleavers (and chuka bocho) can be categorized by the thickness of their blades.
There is a reputation surrounding Chinese cleavers that they can “do everything.” This is somewhat true of middleweight, Chinese-made cleavers, but not without compromise. A jack-of-all-trades is master of none. In Chinese, a middleweight blade is sometimes called a “civil and military knife” (wénwǔ dāo, 文武刀), because it can handle both light and heavy jobs that include chopping meat and vegetables as well as poultry or fish bones. For really big jobs, like pork or beef bones, a “bone hacking knife” (duò gǔ dāo,剁骨刀) would still be the preferred choice.
There are also thinner blades for more delicate and precise cutting of boneless meat, vegetables, fruits, etc., which are typically known as “slicing knives” (piàn dāo,片刀) or “mulberry knives” (sāng dāo,桑刀). Another Chinese name for a cleaver-shaped chef’s knife is often mistranslated as “vegetable cleaver” (cài dāo, 菜刀). The word vegetable in this context actually means food more broadly, and so this would be better translated as just “kitchen knife” as it refers to Chinese cleavers more generally.
The Japanese approach to knifemaking tends towards specialization, which means that most chuka bocho are on the thinner, harder, “slicier” side of the spectrum. They are high performance chef’s knives that are perfect for finely slicing, dicing, and mincing but can’t be used to chop bones. That being said, there are Japanese-made butchery cleavers that are great for heavy duty use, and there are also workhorse chuka bocho, too.
I got a fever, and the only cure is MORE CHUKA BOCHO!
Chinese-style cleavers can appeal to a wide range of professional chefs and home cooks alike. Here’s a few reasons and situations that call for a Chinese-style cleaver:
There you have it, folks. When I’m cooking, a Chinese-style cleaver is my go-to knife, and I think many folks would feel the same if they gave it a try. When I first started using one, I put all my other knives away (except bread and petty knives) and forced myself to get used to the unfamiliar shape. After a month, I was hooked! There’s something so satisfying about deftly wielding such a large piece of cutlery. I hope this blog post will help to demystify the glory and joy of the chuka bocho.
Come visit us in store to get your hands on one of these beauties or navigate to the chuka bocho page on our website to purchase online. We ship worldwide!
Below you’ll find descriptions of a few chuka bocho that we stock regularly. If you have any questions or can’t decide which one you want, feel free to get in touch with us via email, chat, social media, or in person at one of brick and mortar stores.
This no-frills cleaver is great value for money. It makes a wonderful first chuka bocho for someone looking to try the shape or for people wanting a workhorse knife that isn't hard to look after. It’s got a clean, classy look, and is made from ultra sharp yet affordable SK4 semi-stainless steel. While this blade is harder than your average Chinese-made cleaver for better edge retention, it’s not as hard as a lot of other Japanese steel, which makes it a bit tougher. SK4 steel is often found in machetes and axes, so you could get away with using the two inches of the blade closest to the cleaver's handle to chop small fish or chicken bones.
Looking for something flashy and easy to handle? This stunning VG10 blade feels a bit less intimidating in the hand, perfect for someone wan ting to dip their toes in, but intimidated by the standard Chuka Bocho size. The blade is super easy to care for, and the mid-weight will be good for any user.
Now we're talking! This guy sports some serious heft. Thin at the edge, thicker up top, it's perfect for plowing through big piles of prep! Much like the Shun, it has great edge retention but is super easy to care for. If you work in a restaurant and have a ton of veggies to work your way through on a daily basis, you need to snag this knife.
Knifewear owner and president Kevin Kent’s fascination with handcrafted Japanese knives began while he was working as sous-chef for the legendary chef Fergus Henderson at St. John restaurant in London, England. Back in Canada in 2007 he began selling them out of a backpack from the back of his bicycle, while working as a chef in Calgary. He considers his chef years as the best education for being an entrepreneur. Being a chef takes long hours, involves hard work, both mentally and physically, and chefs must be able to put out fires, both literal and figurative, with extreme competence. Today, Kent is still just as obsessed with Japanese knives as the day he first held one. A couple times a year, he travels to Japan to meet with his blacksmith friends and drinks far too much sake. Each visit he learns more about the ancient art of knife-making. Through this obsession Knifewear has expanded to include five Knifewear stores in Calgary, Vancouver, Ottawa, and Edmonton. Plans are also underway to open a store in Kyoto, Japan. He refuses to confess how many Japanese knives he owns … but he admits the number is rather high
Back in the day Colin cooked at a couple restaurants in Edmonton, and he used to make knives too. He later moved to Toronto and was seduced by a career in music, though he continued sharpening knives for friends and family. By night, he DJ'd and produced beats as Ronin E-Ville, and by day he taught music at several universities, all while training to become a kung fu master. Colin eventually moved to Ireland, working as a music researcher for a couple years and learning to make shillelaghs. Since returning to Canada, Colin is stoked to be getting back to his roots with knives, happily nerding-out on steels, blacksmiths, and sharpening. If you want to know about Chinese-style cleavers (chuka bocho), Colin’s your guy! (Photo credit @davidmarionphotography)
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