Tips & Techniques

The #1 Tool in the Burmese Kitchen—And Soon, Your Own—Also Minimizes Cleanup

February 14, 2018

Setting up your cutting board and knife before you cook is a no-brainer move. We take for granted that, at some point in the process, we'll need to chop something when making a meal. But what if we don't always need to use a cutting board? What would we use in place of a knife?

I never gave much thought to my cutting-board reliance until I was standing in a home kitchen in Bagan, a famous temple town in Myanmar, watching two women cook lunch for our group. The women knew I was there researching local recipes for the Burma Superstar cookbook, so they had stocked the kitchen with freshwater fish, plum tomatoes, shallots, peanut oil, cauliflower, green beans, and heaps of leafy greens and herbs. The counter was a teal wooden plank stretching along the kitchen's wall, which held a charcoal burner, a few bowls of ingredients, and a slow cooker filled with butter beans, plugged into the only kitchen outlet. A wok sat on top of the charcoal burner. But there wasn't a cutting board in sight.

They prepared all those vegetables and herbs by using a pair of scissors.

It feels like making a magic potion! Photo by Kate Leahy

Holding one of the plum tomatoes over one small bowl, one of the women snipped it into wedges. Scissors and tomatoes should equal a big mess, but this variety held up to the shears. She also snipped a few small shallots into the same bowl and then added both to the wok at the same time. While the tomatoes and shallots cooked, she used the scissors to portion the fish fillets, adding them to the wok after the tomatoes had cooked down. The resulting dish—seasoned with shrimp paste and a handful of a tart green herb called sour leaf—tasted far more complex than I have anticipated. Even better: by snipping ingredients directly into prep bowls, they saved on cleanup.

The way these women worked in Bagan could have been an anomaly, but I saw the same thing later in San Francisco when I cooked with Burmese women. They reached for the scissors first, knife second. These ladies were onto something.

Full disclosure: I am nowhere near ready to abandon my cutting board and knife. But I also try to think twice before hauling it out for jobs that can be done with a pair of scissors instead. As for which scissors to use? I reserve kitchen shears for cutting through chicken backbones and the like, so my blades are always dull. For other jobs, I prefer smaller scissors that fit comfortably in my hand and can be cleaned easily. No fast rules; use what feels right to you.

What to snip? A starter list:

Fresh Herbs

When it comes to leafier herbs, like parsley or cilantro, or delicate herbs, like chives, sometimes all you need is a few snips to finish a dish. (Chefs have been doing this for years.) Snipping herbs can also give them a prettier, less uniform look. I find it's especially handy to use scissors to snip fresh herbs over leftovers and make them look pretty.

Produce

Use scissors when you don't need vegetables cut into uniform shapes and sizes. Cut celery stalks directly into the pot for stock, slice through green onions, even cut through sturdy plum tomatoes if they're going into a sauce (but start by piercing the tomato through the stem end and wear an apron). Work with your hands as much as you do with the scissors. For water spinach, which has incredibly long stems, I separate the stems from the leafier tops with my hands before snipping the stems into 3-inch portions with scissors. Of course, not all produce is made for scissors, and that's okay. Small, peeled shallots can work, large yellow onions not so much. And skip the root vegetables. I tried once, never again.

Hot Snack Foods

In Myanmar, they use scissors to snip through samosas, fried potatoes, and other kinds of fritter or snack foods, even when they're hot. To do it without burning your hands, hold the scissors so that they point down over the food, and then snip.

Shrimp and Fish

While you may not be able to get away from leaving your knife behind completely, scissors can do a lot of the heavy lifting. With shrimp, by snipping away the legs and the tip of the tail, it's easier to peel away the rest of the shell by hand. With whole fish, scissors help you trim away fins and gills. (But while the women in Bagan were bold enough to portion fish fillets with scissors, I'd stick with a sharp knife for this task.)

Bonus Round

While working at a cutting board usually means standing in one place for a while, using scissors is mobile. You can take your prep with you from the kitchen into the family room, if that's where the action is (or if the kitchen is too crowded). One of the best interviews I did while researching Burma Superstar was in a living room with my co-author Desmond Tan’s mom, Eileen. While she sat on the couch describing how to make kebat (a homey stir-fry), she also snipped through a huge pile of greens. Call it a scissors social.

Do you use scissors in the kitchen often? How? Tell us in the comments!

This post originally ran in April 2017. We're publishing it again because everyone needs to know how to maximize their scissor use in the kitchen!

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15 Comments

Yoojin L. February 19, 2018
in korea, we often use scissors to cut meat for bbq, so i've always used scissors to cut meat! my boyfriend (american) always laughs at me and says it's ridiculous, but it's only natural for me!
 
Annada R. February 14, 2018
Just this morning I used shears to cut roasted almonds into halves for my salad. I use them for chopping cilantro too, especially when I use the stems too for chutneys and stews.
 
K April 10, 2017
Mine are always in the dishwasher too. I think I got the habit of scissor cutting canned whole tomatoes from Chris Kimball, maybe?
 
Author Comment
Kate L. April 10, 2017
A friend of mine just told me she always uses scissors for cutting canned whole tomatoes before taking them out of the can. I did it on Sunday and it worked like charm.
 
Alice April 13, 2017
I think that may have been Alton Brown?
 
Caroline M. April 10, 2017
I've always used scissors for meat because it saves getting the chopping board contaminated with meat juices - less washing up!
 
dickensthedog April 9, 2017
I use scissors in the kitchen for lots of things, as evidenced that they are constantly in the dishwasher when I need them, since I don't trust that I can get them clean enough by hand, especially when I use them to cut meat or fish. Scissors that come apart for cleaning will solve that problem very nicely. Thanks so much for the tip!
 
Adrienne April 9, 2017
Use large shears for cutting chicken into pieces. Use scissors for herba and to cut string beans to size.
 
ktr April 8, 2017
I started using kitchen shears to cut pizza when my pizza cutter got rusty and I'll never go back to a pizza cutter. The scissors I have come apart for easy cleaning which was always an issue with the pizza cutter.
 
Lainie April 7, 2017
I use these Joyce Chen scissors all the time in the kitchen. They are very good for cutting up chickens and I also find them to be very useful for snipping the ends off string beans.<br />https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0000CFLH7/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o03_s02?ie=UTF8&psc=1<br />
 
Peta April 7, 2017
Ditto all the above and below. Since I prefer to vacation with a kitchen included, I pack kitchen shears along with a good chef's knife.
 
Shannon K. April 6, 2017
I started doing this when I worked in a group home - we had multiple pairs of food sheers and just a few dull cooking knives. We had several residents who needed food cut into small pieces, so we were all used to using them and it transferred to cooking. I still do this, all the time. Any herbs, lettuce, tomato, meat, etc.
 
scott.finkelstein.5 April 6, 2017
I can butcher a chicken and debone the breast and thighs using a pair of sheers.
 
Lisa April 6, 2017
I snip: pizza, quesadillas, green onions, chives and other leafy herbs, meatballs (halved to reheat or serve as smaller pieces), grapes for salads, chicken breast (to make strips or pieces), cooked noodles that need to be in smaller lengths or to create a number of easy-to-serve portions out of a mess-of-spaghetti - all sorts of things.
 
Author Comment
Kate L. April 6, 2017
Lisa, those are great suggestions -- I've used scissors to snip grape clusters into smaller clusters, but I haven't used them to snip them in half. That's a good fruit salad tip. But you're right on about pizza. A16 in SF gives you scissors with your pizza so you can custom-cut your own pieces.