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The Hardest-Working Tool in the Burmese Kitchen—and Soon, Your Own

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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.

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

It feels like we're making a magic potion!
It feels like we're 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.

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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.

Zwilling Stainless Steel Kitchen Shears

Zwilling Stainless Steel Kitchen Shears

$99
Brass Scissors

Brass Scissors

$34

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.

Burmese-Inspired Chicken Braised in Coconut Milk & Turmeric with Sweet Potato
Burmese-Inspired Chicken Braised in Coconut Milk & Turmeric with Sweet Potato

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!