Caidao, a large flat Chinese chopping knife or Chinese chef's knife, is an all-purpose tool that can accomplish most cutting tasks in the kitchen from breaking down to slicing ingredients to the thinness of hair.
Although the name is composed of the Chinese character cai, which means vegetable, and dao, which means knife, caidao is used in preparing all types of food.
In Western kitchens, a set of knives featuring a chef's knife for general utility, a cleaver for butchering and a small blade for intricate peeling work is often standard.
The more detailed classification allows users to select specialized tools for specific purposes.
For Chinese cooks and chefs, a high-quality and handy caidao is one of the most essential tools in the kitchen, and that one knife is sufficient for handling basic food preparation in the kitchen.
Though caidao generally refers to a wide and flat chopping knife, it's sometimes used as a generic term to describe the category of Chinese kitchen knives which includes slicing, chopping and boning knives.
The early prototype of the Chinese chef's knife can be traced back to the Longshan culture about 4,500 years ago when specific knives for cooking first appeared. At the Taosi historic site in Shanxi Province, archeologists discovered four bluestone kitchen knives and seven wooden cutting boards, on which there were traces of pork bones and meat.
The early kitchen knives were called chudao, with chu referring to kitchen.
Later, bronze replaced stone as the material to make kitchen knives and their function gradually became more specialized in the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC).
One of the most notable records of the kitchen knife is from the story "Dismemberment of Ox by Paoding" in "Zhuangzi," the ancient texts by Zhuang Zhou in the 4th century BC that laid the foundations of Daosim, which described the different techniques in butchering different parts of an ox.
By the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279), there were already cutting workers in the kitchens. In "Pao Chu Tu," the picture of a kitchen unearthed from the Xiazhuanghe Song Dynasty tomb in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, a female cook was dissecting and slicing meat with a rectangular-shaped knife that's similar to the modern caidao.
In the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), the name caidao started to appear in folk operas and stories as the unified name for knives used to cut vegetables and meat, while the modern caidao was popularized in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.
Although the shape and size of a caidao resembles the cleaver in Western kitchens, it's not the same in both design and purpose.
The Chinese caidao is a large rectangular yet thin-bladed knife that can be used in the slicing, chopping and mincing of the majority of ingredients, be they vegetables, fish or meat.
It can even break down some not-so-tough bones. Purpose-wise, it's similar to the Western chef's knife, only in a different shape that's advantageous in Chinese cooking.
For starters, Chinese food preparation requires a significant amount of slicing. Both vegetables and meats are processed into thin slices and strips for use in stir-fry, stews and soups. The wider caidao is perfect for this task. The upper part is heavier than the blade, so one can chop and slice more efficiently with the help of its own weight, something that can't be achieved with the long and sharp Western-style chef's knife.
Slicing and chopping with the caidao is also safer, as the wide blade can keep the fingers away. The correct gesture is to keep the meat or vegetables in place with the fingertips slightly tucked in, so the finger joints touch the surface, protecting the fingertips.
Meanwhile, the caidao's large surface area can be used to transport processed ingredients from the cutting board to plates or wok, saving time and effort.
In order to break down hard bones or butcher larger parts of meat, a heavier bone knife would be used which looks the same as a caidao but has a thicker blade.
A traditional Chinese caidao is forged from carbon steel, which is heavy and easy to slice with. Its downside is that iron knives can rust and may add a metallic taste to certain ingredients over time.
Today, stainless steel is the more common and popular option. Softer in texture and lighter in weight, stainless-steel knives resist rust better and are easy to sharpen.
A good knife should be rust and corrosion-resistant and guarantee a high level of sharpness. Usually, the higher the carbon content, the harder the material and the easier to maintain sharpness, but it's more prone to rust.
Some blacksmiths would demonstrate the sharpness of a caidao by using the large kitchen knife to shave.
To maintain the sharp edge, kitchen knives need to be sharpened regularly, and that can be done either at home or by giving the knives to people who specialize in the task. Even today, you can find street vendors who travel around the city offering knife-sharpening services.
The top kitchen knife brands in China include Zhang Xiao Quan from Hangzhou, Wang Ma Zi from Beijing, Dengjia Knife from Chongqing and Shibazi from Yangjiang, Guangdong Province.
Established in the 17th century, Zhang Xiao Quan is best known for its high-quality scissors, but their kitchen knife line is also sought after. There are both carbon-steel and stainless-steel versions, as well as lightweight designs for people who cannot handle the traditional heavy Chinese caidao.
Wang Ma Zi is similar to Zhang Xiao Quan. They both produce scissors and knives.
Dengjia Knife is another family business that has now been passed down to the fifth generation. In the 1980s, the price of their knives was double the market average. The strongest trait of Dengjia Knife was a very hard cutting edge.
Yangjiang Shibazi is a more popular Chinese kitchen knife brand. The company, which was established in 1983, has more than half the domestic market share. Because of its place of origin, it's favored by many Cantonese chefs.