Slicing with a cleaver occurs mainly on two planes: horizontal and vertical. The Chinese character for “slice” (pien 片), itself images the idea. One special style of vertical slicing is diagonal slicing.
For horizontal slicing, when you are holding the knife parallel to the board, the technique required for greatest safety and control is one that I’ve dubbed “flying fingers.” In this posture, your cutting hand holds the cleaver parallel to the cutting surface in the close-chopping hold, with the fingers carefully guiding the blade. Your free hand anchors the food to the board, pinning it down with the midsection of your closely-joined middle three fingers while your palm, thumb, pinkie, and the tips of the middle fingers all arch upwards and “fly” out of reach of the advancing blade. If every part of the hand except for the small portion required to anchor the food to the board is “flying,” there is no way you can be cut by the blade. When extra control is needed to pin down a particularly small or slippery piece of food, simply rock the pinning fingers forward.
For vertical slicing, when the knife is perpendicular to the board, the technique required for greatest safety and efficiency is one I call “curved knuckles” The five fingertips of your free hand join together and curve inward in unison toward the palm, and the side of the blade balances against the third and fourth knuckles, which serve as a retreating barrier for the cleaver. So long as the fingertips remain curved under, there is no way they can be cut by the descending blade.
Whatever the posture, the anchoring hand must be relaxed and hold the food only lightly against the board because its job is to move backward as the knife advances with each new slice. The fingers stay curved under, the knuckles remain as a supportive barrier for the blade, and the nails skirt lightly along the length of the object being cut.
It is a smooth, fluid movement when put into practice, designed to give you maximum speed with a minimum of tension and effort, and a precision control over the thickness or thinness of the slice. A paper-thin slice is obtained by a minimal movement, and a thick slice from a discernible movement of the knuckles and the fingers moving backward.
For diagonal slicing, the knife is again perpendicular to the board and the technique is again “curved knuckles.” The slices can be long oblongs or short ovals depending on the angle of the knife across the thing to be cut, and thick or paper-thin depending on the retreating movement of your knuckles behind the blade.
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.