Chinese cooking relies on good knife skills. Remarkably, almost all of the cutting – be it fine slicing or heavy duty chopping – can be done with one knife: a large blade cleaver.
So it was shocking to many Chinese when one of the mainland’s most prestigious knife companies said its multi-use cleaver should not be used for smashing garlic – an action normally performed by turning the blade on its side and bringing a fist down on it to crush the garlic underneath.
Zhang Xiaoquan was founded in 1628 in Hangzhou and has, over the course of four centuries, built a reputation for high quality blades.
The saga erupted in mid-July when a Ms Wang contacted Zhang Xiaoquan customer service to complain that her three-month-old cleaver had broken in two as she tried to smash or pai her garlic.
Zhang Xiaoquan said the knife shouldn’t be used that way, causing many netizens to protest that a “Chinese knife that can’t smash garlic is no Chinese knife”.
Making matters worse they dug up an old video of Zhang Xiaoquan’s general manager Xia Qianliang saying that Chinese people have been “cutting vegetables wrong for decades” and that Chinese cooks needed to be “educated”.
“Michelin chefs don’t cut that way,” he added.
Taken together the two events looked deeply dismissive of customers and age-old cooking methods, leading many to call for a rethink of Zhang Xiaoquan’s status as a ‘traditional Chinese brand’.
“Xia is clearly one of those Chinese who worships everything foreign,” wrote one irritated Sina Weibo user.
“The Chinese were making refined dishes and superior knives long before Michelin came along,” remarked another.
Others said that they still used cleavers that their parents had bought decades ago.
Of course, Zhang Xiaoquan’s competitors, such as Wang Mazi, were quick to capitalise on the company’s run of bad luck by posting videos and staging public displays of their knives being used to smash garlic and chop other things.
To counter, Zhang Xiaoquan, apologised and tried to explain that the knife in question was designed for enhanced sharpness but as a result it was more brittle.
The company also back-peddalled on its earlier customer service gaffe and promised to replace any knife which had broken in the past five years.
Zhang Xiaoquan used to be famous for its “72 steps to make a knife manually” – based on technology dating back to the Ming Dynasty. In 1958 the company came under state control and some of the ancient techniques were lost as the factory line moved into mass production.
Today Zhang Xiaoquan is private again and was, until the recent scandal, benefiting from newfound consumer pride in domestic brands – especially those with a long history.
However, some suspect that the company had commercially exploited that patriotic sentiment and spent more on marketing than developing good products. Zhang Xiaoquan allocated just Rmb23 million to research and development last year, but forked out Rmb117 million in sales promotion, the China Daily reported. “It is alright to capitalise on heritage, but traditional brands should continue to provide high quality products that come with excellent workmanship,” the state-run newspaper concluded.
(For a detailed explanation of the importance of the cleaver and its use in Chinese cuisine WiC highly recommends chapter five of Fuchsia Dunlop’s Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper. Dunlop – who attended a culinary school in Chengdu in the mid-nineties – explains there are 15 types of cut and a further dozen terms for knife techniques such as pounding (chui). At her cooking college she learned “a single cleaver can be used to perform almost every task, from chopping a lotus root to peeling a tiny piece of ginger, and it’s often the only knife in a Chinese kitchen”. In her memoir Dunlop recalls that she has been using her Sichuan cleaver for years and bought it “for the equivalent of a couple of pounds… My hand-made Sichuanese knife has become my indispensable cooking tool; it’s like a talisman.”)
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