The other day, I watched Iron Chef Morimoto cut a potato. He turned the potato in his left hand and with a razor-sharp chef’s knife, cut around it, producing a paper-thin ribbon, a continuous strip of potato about the length of my arm. He then rolled it and cut it into a chiffonade, finely cut strips, to use as a delicate garnish. And he did all of this in perhaps 20 seconds.

The only way I could do that would be to use a mandolin (sometimes spelled “mandoline”), a manual food processor for vegetables.

There are a number of different kinds of mandolin, suitable to different purposes. Asian cooks have long been using continuous strands of vegetables in cooking as they cook more quickly, producing tender, flavourful vegetables for use in stir frying or making soups. And, of course, you can make beautiful garnishes with them. To this end, the Benriner Turning Slicer is top of the line and the most versatile. The Joyce Chen is practical for continuous slicing or thin strands.

However, if you've never used one before, you might want to try one first. My first mandolin was one purchased in Chinatown for less than $15.00. It was made of plastic, had three blades, and it was fine until I began to envision a greater range of options. Moha makes a six-piece starter set that has a container to catch the slices and strands, if you want to use it.

If you like very thin matchstick slices and don't care about continuous strands, the Benriner is more versatile with 3 settings. The Borner has a fixed setting and comes with a separate waffle cutter.

Professional chefs tend to choose the traditional Bron Professional, now available in Stainless Steel because it is more versatile than any other. It's also a little more difficult to operate, but once you get used to it, it's wonderful. Another would be the Matfer, which combines stainless steel and plastic, is easier to operate and dishwasher safe. The Bron Gourmet is easy to operate, but it doesn't come with a stand so you have to hold it like a grater.

Most of these come with a food guard, so you don’t have to worry about cutting your hands. While I am sure Iron Chefs get little cuts and nicks and burns on their fingers and knuckles, I don’t think anyone would want to see their fingers on the cutting board on top of a mound of carrot matchsticks.

What is a Mandolin?

A mandolin is a fretted instrument with eight strings grouped into four courses, each tuned a fifth apart.. In each course both strings are tuned to the same note, but the impossibility of them being totally identical provides an interesting chorus effect, which helps to make this tiny instrument sound so big. These courses are tuned (low to high) G-D-A-E, the same tuning as a violin. If you can play a violin, and have a basic grip on how a guitar or ukulele should be played (and don't have huge fingers) you can play a mandolin. If you can play guitar or ukulele, and have a decent ability to think your way around different tunings, you can play mandolin.

Most mandolins resemble a miniature acoustic guitar, only with a differently shaped body and a neck profile a little more like a violin (narrower, and with more fretboard camber). An average mandolin is approximately one and a half feet long and about ten inches across. The standard scale length of a Gibson mandolin (fairly strong representative of the bulk of mandolins around) is 14 1/8".

How Do You Play a Mandolin?

I'm not going to write a comprehensive guide since I'm an abysmal mandolin player myself, but the general theme to mandolin playing is quite similar to other fretted instruments. Hold the string against the fret and pluck the string. Do this with more than one string at once to get a chord.

Mandolins don't have much sustain, so rather than plucking and holding a note like you would on a guitar, tremolo picking (fast back and forth picking on a single note - think of The Godfather soundtrack and you're right on the money) and fast strumming tend to keep the level of sound coming out of the instrument right up there.

Types of Modern Mandolins

There are two common styles of mandolin to be found in modern music, the A style and the F Style:

The A style (designed by Orville Gibson) is the (slightly) older and (significantly) cheaper design of the two, and has a more or less teardrop shaped body, with an almost totally flat back, an arched top, a trapeze style bridge, and two f-holes.

The F style (ALSO designed by Mr Gibson) is very similar to the A style in terms of functional design, but features a short, sharp cutaway horn on the treble side of the body, pointing at about 45 degrees away from the neck, and a large intricate curl on the bass side of the body. F styles usually have only one f-hole, but are usually more beautifully lacquered and bound, sometimes with intricate inlay work in the headstock and fretboard.

Other Mandolins

Before Gibson's creation of the modern mandolin at the beginning of the 1800's, most mandolins were bouzouki-style affairs with large rounded backs, but were not otherwise very different from their more modern counterparts.

Some companies (Fender for example) also make solid body electric mandolins, some with variations in the number of strings/courses (just to make things hard for us all).

The mandolin family also includes the mandola (same deal as a mandolin only larger, and tuned down a fifth overall), the octave mandolin (larger still, only an octave below a conventional mandolin), and the mandocello (even larger, and tuned an octave below a mandola). The observant amongst you might have noticed that this lot roughly corresponds to the violin, the viola, the viol, and the cello. I've never heard of anyone with a bass mandolin, but I have no doubt that John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin fame has commissioned one to be made for him. He's had bass versions of everything else made, so why not a mandolin?

Where to Hear Mandolins in Use

Mandolins feature most heavily in a modern setting in bluegrass and country/blues music, but (like their cousins the guitars) have been used in a huge number of different styles of music.

In terms of rock bands, Led Zeppelin's 'Battle of Evermore' features some beautiful cascading mandolin sounds, and Cheap Trick's guitarist Rick Nielsen made regular use of solid body mandocellos, in one case as one neck on a custom quintuple-neck guitar made for him by Hamer Guitars.

In country/bluegrass music, slugo cites Bill Monroe and Ricky Skaggs as examples of players who "can really demonstrate how to tear one up."

The most prominent use of mandolin in "classical" music (note the quote marks) was probably baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi.

Man"do*lin, Man"do*line (?), n. [F. mandoline, It. mandolino, dim. of mandola, fr. L. pandura. See Bandore.] Mus.

A small and beautifully shaped instrument resembling the lute.

© Webster 1913.

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