There’s something about a person wielding a sharp knife. I am, of course, referring merely to the rhythm of a kitchen knife. I sit mesmerised when a chef on a television show chops onions or tomatoes. One of my favourite pastimes is watching an online rural cookery show where women from Kerala cook all kinds of simple regional dishes. When an elderly villager peels and slices a potato with a sharp knife, it feels like magic.
I am not the only one charmed by knives. “There is a peculiar joy in holding a knife that feels just right for your hand and marvelling as it dices an onion, almost without effort on your part,” author-scholar Bee Wilson writes in Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat.
The 2012 book was recommended to me by my food history-loving physicist friend. It looks at the technology of food, delving deep into issues such as fire, forks, ice, and pots and pans. And there is, of course, an illuminating chapter on knives.
“The knife is the oldest tool in the cook’s armory, older than the management of fire by somewhere between 1 million and 2 million years, depending on which anthropologist you believe,” she writes.
Every meal’s foundation
The earliest stone-cutting tools date back 2.6 million years to Ethiopia, she points out. Excavations have unearthed sharp-ended rocks and bones with cut-marks on them. “Cutting with some implement or the other is the most basic way of processing food. Knives do some of the work that feeble human teeth cannot.”
So it’s no surprise that the tool occupies the high table in the kitchen. “In my experience, when you ask chefs what their favourite kitchen gadget is, nine times out of ten they will say a knife. They say it slightly impatiently, because it is just so obvious: the foundation of every great meal is accurate cutting.”
There was a time when knives (in many parts of the world) were sharp on both sides of the blade. This changed when, sometime in 1637, Cardinal Richelieu, chief advisor to King Louis XIII of France, saw a dinner guest using the sharp tip of a double-edged knife to pick his teeth.
“This act so appalled the cardinal — whether because of the danger or the vulgarity is not entirely clear — that he ordered all his own knives to be made blunt, starting a new fashion.”
Different kinds of knives play different roles in the food we eat. The French chef Auguste Escoffier (1846–1935), who is said to have laid the foundation of modern French restaurant cooking, had separate sections in the kitchen for sauces, meats and pastries. “Each of these units had its own persnickety knives,” Wilson writes.
French food, indeed, has “meticulous knife work” behind it. If you like raw oysters, you will know that someone has “skilfully opened each mollusk with an oyster shucker, sliding the knife upward to cut the adductor muscle that holds the shell closed.” Likewise, a savoury French steak has been suitably moulded by a knife. And then there are vegetables.
“A garnish of turned vegetables — so pretty, so whimsical, so unmistakably French — is the direct result of a certain knife, wielded in a certain way, guided by a certain philosophy about what food should be.”
She turns the lens on the different kinds of knives used in different parts of the world. “Perhaps no knife is quite as multifunctional, nor quite as essential to a food culture, as the Chinese tou,” she writes, referring to the cleaver-like tool used to chop ingredients into small pieces. The Japanese santoku is “one of the most desirable, all-purpose knives for the home kitchen.” The word means ‘three uses’ — for it is equally good at cutting meat, chopping vegetables and slicing fish.
“Become the boss of a sharp knife, and you are the boss of the whole kitchen,” Wilson proclaims.
Did someone say a knife is a knife is a knife? Chop that thought.
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