It is one thing to open up an Amazon package of something I ordered for myself, but it’s another to get surprise mail like the envelope above. Historian and novelist Dana Sachs sent it to me, prefacing on Facebook that she had a gift to add to my kitchen. I had no clue what to expect. Then the manila envelope arrived.
It looked plain and unassuming. Being flat, it couldn’t contain artisanal palm sugar or homegrown chiles, a couple of past food gifts that I’ve received in the mail.
But it must have had something to do with Vietnam because that is Dana’s area of specialty. (Her new book, The Lives We Were Given, details the fall of Saigon through the journey of thousands of babies airlifted from Vietnam in April 1975.) On the back of the envelope, Dana cautiously warned me to open it carefully, lest I cut myself. Did she send me one of the 'killer' dao bao shredder/peeler knives?
Turns out that she sent me a handmade knife from Hanoi. She carefully wrapped the blade in paper and affixed this post-it note:
These are my favorite knives in the world. Don’t put it in the dishwasher. Also, they rust, so just wash it off. But they never get dull.I slipped off the newspaper sleeve and found a hand-forged blade. My gawd. I’d never seen such a rustic knife. But I could not use it – yet.
Knife gifting superstition: If someone gifts you a knife, you have to give them something back. The going rate is $1 for my family. If you don’t exchange a small token for the knife, then it will seem like the gift giver wishes you ill-will. (Years ago, my brother-in-law’s dad gifted my mom a knife. She got so upset. “What is he thinking of?” she asked. She later slipped my brother in law a dollar to pass on to his father.)
I sent Dana a buck, and she responded that that was too much. Then she got worried as she hadn’t been fully aware of Vietnamese knife gifting etiquette. She had given a lot of these inexpensive knives from Vietnam without getting anything return. What kind of karma had she left in her tracks as a Hanoi knife dealer? She vowed that in the future, she’ll be asking for a penny. A smart workaround!
After I sent the dollar and Dana confirmed she received it, I used the knife. It was a little flimsy but did a fine job of cutting up Chinese garlic chives, avocado and yes, even a tomato. When I went to wash the knife, the blade fell out. My mouth fell open. I use lots of inexpensive Asian knives but this one was a doozy.
Disassembled, the knife looked like an antique museum piece. The tang, that skinny pokey thing at the bottom of the blade that goes into the handle, was next to nothing. That meant that the knife wasn’t meant for major kitchen duty. It’s not super sturdy and okay for simple easy tasks.
Putting the knife away in my drawer, I imagined the cooks who may use such a knife in their Vietnamese kitchens. That made me appreciate all the fine chopping that goes into cooking an Asian meal.
Where to buy these Vietnamese knives: Dana regularly buys the knives when she goes to Hanoi. Her source is the hardware market behind Dong Xuan Market. There are also lady vendors wandering through the old quarter selling them to tourists.
If you’ve used one of these knives, what was your experience? Have a knife superstition? Do tell.
P.S. If you wonder what kinds of food you can send in the mail, see this Sydney Morning Herald story on sending food gifts via postal mail by Carli Radcliff.