I believe that every cook has some favourite tool in the kitchen. For some, it might be a favourite pot or pan or a kadhai. But if you were to ask me, I would plump for the knife! To my mind, having the right kind of knife is half the cooking done. I have seen several cooks who are fine with any type of utensil, so long as they have their kind of knife. And when they don’t, you have one disgruntled cook, who makes the employer miserable with incessant complaints about the useless knives he/she has. You wouldn’t believe the kind of knives some cooks ask for – a carpenter’s saw and a sickle, if you please!
There was this cook in the younger son’s house who kept rejecting every knife that he bought for her till in exasperation he told her to buy one and charge him. And she came the next day armed with a knife that had a 12” long blade resembling a carpenter’s saw! After that, there was peace, as she merrily cut and cooked. And then there was this girl in Jabalpur, who helped me in the kitchen when I was recuperating from a surgery. She simply couldn’t cut the vegetables with the assortment of knives I had and even the traditional fixed blade one was found inadequate by her. ‘Aap ke paas hasiya nahi hai?’ (Don’t you have a sickle?) she asked me one day after spending a good 45 minutes over a quarter kg of beans.
Hasiya? Wasn’t it used by farmers to harvest grains? She said it was, but it was the best tool to cut vegetables! She said that she would get one from her house. The next day she came with it, wrapped in her pallu. And after that, the vegetables were cut in a jiffy.
And then we have those who use a small knife to cut everything from the hardest pumpkin to paring a soft mango or peeling a mound of tori. Oh, how I envy them! My friend Suman is one of those amazing people. An excellent cook, she can make any complicated dish look simple and easy and can turn out a feast for a battalion at the shortest of notices. My eyes fairly pop out at the dexterity with which she does it, not least of all by her speed at disposing of the vegetables. (Check out her recipes (and mine too!) at Everyday Veg Cooking)
There are times when I am abashed, even guilty when I open my kitchen drawer and look at my arsenal – of knives. Now, you may ask me why need I so many knives. I won’t even pretend to turn out gourmet meals or cook huge quantities or make an artistic presentation of my dishes. But I do love to use the right knife for the right job. You can’t blame a body for trying to work with the right tools even if she is not a celebrity chef, even if it means having…ahem….a dozen knives in assorted shapes and sizes, can you?
Time was when I could only cut vegetables on the traditional vegetable cutter with its curved blade, a coconut scraper at its end. My mother used it for all her cutting, slicing, chopping and even peeling. It is pretty fast and efficient once you get the hang of it. Though she had a couple of knives, they were not very sharp and only used occasionally. It was only after my marriage that I learnt to cut with a knife on a chopping board and therein began my love affair with knives!
Soon, I became a knife-fiend, making a beeline for the knife-counter in any department store I happened to pass by, sometimes even going in expressly to scout for one. Over the years I collected knives of all shapes and sizes, sometimes being disappointed with them enough to give them away or push them into the recesses of the cupboard, but always looking for new models and shapes.
But one of my most prized kitchen possessions is my big cleaver, which I have had for over a quarter-century now – broken and bandaged but still going strong. I had bought it at a household items exhibition, inspired by Martin Yan, the cookery host of Yan Can Cook fame. I am sure many of you are familiar with his legendary skills of not only chopping assorted vegetables and meat and even carving fruits for decoration. Why do I need a meat cleaver, when I am a pukka vegetarian, you ask? Don’t ask, till you have tried it on vegetables. A cook’s knife with its big blade is fine, but a cleaver beats it handle down!
I watched Yan’s shows carefully trying to learn the tricks and lessons, till I was sure I could handle it like a pro. The first time I used it though, I forgot all the tutorials about holding the cleaver, saving one’s fingers and so on and chopped off a slice of my left forefinger in my enthusiasm! The frightful bleeding had me rushing to the hospital, but that accident didn’t stop me from practising and getting the hang of it by and by. I began chopping fast, though not as fast as Yan. Chopping a big bunch of palak, mincing chillies, ginger and garlic and cutting a kg of beans were just a matter of a few minutes. Why, today I can even compete with Suman and her little knife in speed and that is saying quite a lot!
Over the years it has become my trusty companion and I find myself handicapped without it. Recently when the handle broke, my heart had almost stopped. I lovingly stuck it with Fix-it and bandaged it for good measure! Today, I can even sympathise with the cooks who could only cut vegetables with a carpenter’s saw or a farmer’s sickle! Though I still have so many knives and continue adding to my collection, I have slowed down in the quest and begun depending more and more on my cleaver and a couple of other knives, pulling out the others only occasionally.
Who knows, one day in the not too distant future, I too might become a one-knife cook?