Knife skills are an essential part of any culinary tradition. They give cooks the ability to safely and efficiently cut up ingredients in ways that are appropriate for the dishes they'll be used to create.
To that end, I've written a guide to some common knife cuts drawn from Chinese culinary techniques. This guide is by no means exhaustive—it covers only some of the most commonly used knife cuts in Chinese kitchens—but if you become proficient at cutting vegetables and meats in the ways I've described below, they will serve you well when cooking the vast majority of the dishes that fall under the very large umbrella of Chinese cuisine.
One of the things to keep in mind about these cuts is that they were developed for use with a Chinese-style cleaver. Unlike cleavers from Western culinary traditions, which are primarily used for chopping through bones, Chinese-style cleavers are incredibly versatile, used for vegetables just as often as they're used for slicing fish or cutting up meat. While most Chinese knives are referred to as "cleavers" in English (likely a consequence of their resemblance to a Western-style cleaver), they should not all be used for heavy work like chopping through bone; in fact, there are three primary types of Chinese cleavers—thin blades best suited to more delicate tasks like slicing and dicing, thicker ones for chopping through bone, and hybrid styles that are thicker near the heel for heavy-duty work and thinner at the tip for finer cuts. That being said, I think all of the techniques I describe below can be done with Western-style knives, or even Japanese-style knives, like santokus and gyutous (the photos below demonstrate the cuts using various knife styles). However, a Chinese-style cleaver will be far easier to use when, for example, smashing ginger or garlic.
This is my favorite cut for cylindrical vegetables for most stir-fries and braises. It produces cuts with a large amount of surface area, which makes them ideal for absorbing flavors, while also producing an even, rounded shape that can be easily tossed in a wok.
To cut the vegetables, slice them at a 45-degree angle, then rotate the vegetable a quarter turn before executing the next cut. You can place the index finger of your non-dominant hand on the top of the vegetable to help you judge how far to rotate it. As the cylinder widens, as with a carrot, you can cut smaller chunks off the cylinder to keep the cuts the same size. Large vegetables, like a very large carrot, can be split lengthwise to make thinner lengths before being roll cut.
Commonly used for: Any cylindrical vegetable, for stir-fries or braises
Straight Cut 直刀
This is the most basic cleaver cut, where the weight of the cleaver guides the blade through a solid ingredient. This cut is designed to offer control at speed. While the goal is to minimize any forward movement of the knife, there is still some forward movement. You can place one or two fingers of your dominant hand to grip the flat of the knife: one finger will give you less control; with two fingers, the balance of the knife shifts forward, giving you a little more lateral control that encourages you to lean a little more weight into the cut.
To cut vegetables, first make sure that whatever you're cutting has a flat surface that can lie directly on the cutting board. Then position your non-dominant hand so that it rests on top of the vegetable, with your fingers curled into a claw; this hand will guide the placement of the blade. Using a sufficiently sharp and heavy knife (like a cleaver), make cuts using a mostly downwards motion with minimal forward movement, letting gravity exert most of the force on the knife. As one slice is completed, shift your non-dominant hand slightly back before the next cut.
Commonly used for: Firm fruits and vegetables, such as potatoes, cucumbers, carrots, onions
This technique gives you a high degree of precision because you start the cutting motion with the thinnest part of the blade, toward the tip.
To start, position your non-dominant hand over the ingredient and form your fingers into a claw. Using the knuckles of your non-dominant hand as a guide, start slicing the ingredient by moving the knife forward as you press down, starting with the front part of the blade and using as much of its length as is necessary to complete the cut. This cut is easiest to do with a blade that has a flat profile along its edge, like a Chinese-style cleaver, a santoku, or a nakiri. With a Western-style chef's knife or gyutou, both of which have a curved blade profile, executing this cut can look like a kind of forward rolling motion.
Commonly used for: Thin slices and strips of cooked meats, fruits and vegetables, tofu
This technique is used to minimize bruising on tender vegetables and herbs, like chives and scallions. It's also useful for cutting up soft, wet ingredients that have a tendency to stick to the blade, like meat.
To start, position your non-dominant hand over the ingredient and form your fingers into a claw. Using the knuckles of your non-dominant hand as a guide, start slicing the ingredient with the heel of the blade, then pull the blade towards you as you press down, using as much of its length as is necessary to complete the cut. You can anchor the tip of the blade on the cutting board so that most of the slicing is done towards the heel.
Commonly used for: Strips of meat, leafy herbs
Strip Cut (Julienne)
The one everyone knows: thin, uniformly cut strips, with a width and thickness of about 2mm x 2mm. Strip cut ingredients can easily be picked up with chopsticks; they also recall the shape of thin noodles.
To produce the strips, start by slicing your vegetables into thin planks, then stack the planks and cut through the stack to create consistent strips. Alternatively, you can shingle the thin planks across the cutting board and, using the knuckles of your non-dominant hand to guide the blade, slice the planks into strips.
Commonly used for: Fruits and vegetables
A cut that can be made after you've cut an ingredient into strips; the size of the dice is determined by the width/thickness of the strips. Line up strips of your ingredient and slice them crosswise to produce cubes of a consistent size.
Dicing is important for aromatics or ingredients that need to be bloomed quickly, like bacon, Chinese sausage, as it creates a lot of surface area, and it produces small, uniformly sized pieces for mixed dishes like fried rice.
Commonly used for: Bacon, Chinese sausage
This is a cut that's used on soft ingredients, and while it's most often used with a serrated or bread knife, any knife can be used as a saw.
No matter what knife you use, exert as little downward pressure as possible, and rely instead on the backward and forward motion of the knife to help the knife's edge saw through the ingredient. The goal is to maintain the structural integrity of whatever you're cutting into presentable slices.
Commonly used for: Bread, dough, tomatoes with a dull knife, jelly-like items, frozen tofu
This is a quick and efficient way to pulverize ingredients that you want to mince finely, like garlic and ginger. It quickly extracts aromatic compounds, like alliinase in garlic, but also releases a maximum of water and oil, which in turn maximizes the flavor of the ingredient.
Start by holding the knife in your non-dominant hand, positioning the flat of the knife over a small piece of the ingredient you want to smash. Then bring your dominant hand down in a quick, firm motion to smash the ingredient. It's important to position the ingredient you're smashing in the correct way. For ginger, you want to position the pieces you're smashing so the grain of the rhizome is perpendicular to the cutting board; for garlic, you'll want to halve the cloves and position them vertically, cut side down, on the board.
Commonly used for: Garlic, ginger
This technique is for cutting quickly and cleanly through ingredients, whether they're soft, like a boiled egg, or brittle, like chicken bones. It minimizes that amount of sawing action, which can produce unsightly sawing lines, as with an egg; it also minimizes shattering and the possibility of cutting yourself when cutting through bones. When used on bones, it is typically done with a thick cleaver.
Lodge the knife in the ingredient by sawing into it. Stabilize the knife with your dominant hand, then pound the spine of the knife firmly with your non-dominant hand to finish the cut.
Commonly used for: Cooked eggs, bone-in chicken pieces
This is a quick and efficient way to finely chop a large amount of a given ingredient without being too precise.
Anchor the tip of the knife to the cutting board with your non-dominant hand placed on the spine of the knife, toward the tip, then rock the back end of the knife so the blade passes through the ingredients. For an even faster cut, you can hover your non-dominant hand over the front half of the knife and, when the tip comes up as you rock chop, you can push it back down using your non-dominant hand so that the blade tip bounces back down, allowing you to chop with both the tip and the heel of the knife. It's helpful to use "soft hands"—that is, to not grip the knife too tightly as you do this cut.
Commonly used for: Garlic, ginger, soaked spices
Named after the sound of galloping horses, Chinese chefs use this technique to mince large quantities of an ingredient, usually meat or fish. I think of it sometimes as being a "clop chop" because of the sound it produces. I want to stress that this is not just a manual method for mimicking the effect of a food processor or a meat grinder; while the final mince may look similar to meat processed using those other methods, the texture is distinctly different and quite important for a the light and soft texture of a dish like lion's head meatballs.
Using two heavy knives (preferably cleavers), chop the ingredient up using firm, regular downward strokes. If you can manage it, try to go at double speed with the knife in your dominant hand. As you chop, use the cleavers to bring the mass of ingredients back together.
Commonly used for: Herbs, relishes, meat, fish, and shellfish
This is a technique that's used to produce thin slices of an ingredient, typically used for meat and fish, but also for the end bits of vegetables, like potatoes or turnips. While it offers the accomplished practitioner a fair amount of control in determining the thickness of the slices, it's a difficult technique, and it can be dangerous, as it requires you to saw a thin slice of the ingredient as you stabilize the top of the ingredient with your fingers; it requires a sharp knife, a steady hand, and your undivided attention. If you're not comfortable cutting towards your fingers in this way, you can use the bias slice to produce similar cuts while slicing away from yourself with the blade.
When using this technique on meat, it's helpful to partially freeze the ingredient first (in China, some home fridges have a special compartment that's held at 32°F, so items placed in that compartment are just barely frozen and ready for slicing). When freezing ingredients, try to freeze them flat, in the form that you want to slice them.
With the fingers of your non-dominant hand, press down on the surface of the ingredient. Holding the knife horizontally, parallel to the cutting board, use a sawing motion to create thin slices. The cutting should be mostly done by the sawing motion, not through the use of force exerted by your dominant hand.
Commonly used for: Slices of fresh meat, slicing ends of vegetables when finger space runs out
This is a common cutting technique for preparing sashimi, as it allows you to precisely cut thin, elegant slices at an angle against the grain of the flesh (it's a translation of the Japanese sashimi cutting technique known as hirazukuri).
At a 45° angle, cut off a small piece of the ingredient so you have a flat incline. Place two to three fingers of your non-dominant hand on the flat incline, then begin cutting just under your fingers at a 45° angle starting with the heel of the knife, pulling the blade back toward your body and using the length of the blade to slice through the ingredient. Just before cutting through to sever the slice from the rest of the ingredient block, rotate the knife so it's perpendicular to the cutting board and pull to complete the cut; remove the slice with your non-dominant hand.
Commonly used for: Fresh meat and seafood, when precise, thin, clean slices are needed, for use in things like hot pot and stir-fries
Reverse Bias Slice
This is an easy technique to cut vegetables on a bias while protecting your fingers that's most often used with leeks and scallions, but can also be used for greens like gai lan or stems like asparagus. It also can be used as an easier alternative to the horizontal slice.
Positioning your non-dominant hand over the ingredient, using your knuckles to form an incline. Using your knuckles as a guide, pull the knife toward you while slicing down, using the length of the blade to cut through the ingredient.
Commonly used for: Leeks and scallions are most common, but this is also an alternative and easier technique than bias slices for meats