In 2013, Japanese cuisine (washoku) earned a spot on UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage list, gaining global admiration. A key element in preparing these dishes is the Japanese knife. Japanese knives come in all shapes and sizes, but in this article I will introduce the top three essential Japanese knives used by professional chefs, their characteristics, what they're used for and how to take care of them.
Hidefumi started his career at Hotel Metropolitan "HANAMUSASHI" in 1989, and since then he has worked as a chef and a head chef at various restaurants and ryokan all across Japan for more than 30 years. He holds a chef's license and a fugu chef's license in Tokyo.
Types of Japanese Knives
There are many kinds of Japanese knife and selecting the right knife for each task depends on what you're preparing. A few examples of Japanese knives that serve specific purposes include boning knives for hake, saki knives for eel, muki-mono knives for the decorative cutting of vegetables, and even soba-kiri knives especially for cutting raw noodles like udon and soba. It's not an exaggeration to say that chefs rely on the unique features of these knives to perfect the task at hand.
You might wonder why there are so many types of Japanese knives. Let's explore this question together, and you'll see that each knife has its own special purpose. In this section I will focus on the top three essential knives used by professional chefs in Japan.
Thin-blade knives (usuba bocho/薄刃包丁)
"Usuba Bocho" translates literally as "thin blade knife" and is essentially a vegetable knife. It's thin, sharp blade and sturdy shape make it suitable for peeling, shredding, slicing, etc. Peeling of daikon and other vegetables is always done with a usuba bocho.
As you can see in the picture, there are two types of usuba boucho knives, the "Higashigata type" used in the Kanto region (East Japan) and "Kamagata type" used in Kansai region (West). Both knives are used for the same purpose, but "Kamagata" has more uses for decorative crafting and peeling as well.
Sashimi knives (刺身包丁)
This knife is perfect for cutting mouthwatering sashimi. You might be wondering, "What does it mean to cut deliciously?" Well, the taste of sashimi can change depending on how it's sliced. If sashimi is cut with a dull knife, the cells and fibers can become damaged and it won't taste as good.
Comparing the texture and smoothness of well-cut and poorly-cut sashimi, you'll notice a difference when you taste them. That's why a sashimi knife is designed to use its entire blade length to slice fish without damaging the flesh. A sharp knife is crucial, especially for sashimi.
Within sashimi knifes, there are three main types; the yanagiba, the takohiki and the fuguhiki. Yanagiba and takohiki have different shaped blades, but are generally used for the same purpose. Fuguhiki has a thinner blade and narrower blade width, it is used especially for cutting pufferfish.
Pointed carver (deba bocho/出刃包丁)
The "Deba Bocho" is specially designed for cutting a single fish. It's thicker and heavier than other knives, using its weight to handle fish and cut through bones with ease. The knife's length depends on the size of the fish being prepared.
Using a large knife on small fish makes it hard to handle, while a small knife on large fish has a blade that's too short and puts stress on the flesh, making it difficult to achieve clean cuts. That's why it's essential to use a small knife for small fish and a large knife for large fish, ensuring easy handling.
The Difference between Japanese Knives and Western knives
First, let's explore the three main differences: blade attachment, material, and original purpose. The most noticeable difference is how the blade is attached. Japanese kitchen knives are typically single-edged, while Western ones are double-edged. This is because Japanese knives were inspired by samurai swords, made from a steel called Nihon-kou (日本鋼). To create a thin, strong blade, both Japanese swords and knives undergo a "forging" process, repeatedly hammering the steel.
Some Japanese knives have a steel blade sandwiched between two iron layers, while more expensive ones are made entirely of steel, like samurai swords.
In contrast, Western knives, influenced by past warriors' fighting styles, feature double-edged stainless steel blades for cutting and stabbing. Western knives are mainly made of stainless steel, making them easier to maintain than Japanese knives, which rust more easily.
Lastly, Japanese knives are mainly used for cutting fish and vegetables, while Western knives are designed for meat preparation.
Characteristics of Japanese Knives
One advantage of Japanese knives is how they can thinly and finely cut ingredients, a key element in sashimi. While Western knives can do this to some extent, Japanese knives achieve better results by not breaking the cell fibers. Of course, a sharp knife is essential for clean cuts, no matter which kind of knife you use.
Japanese knives come in many types, each designed for specific tasks, enabling delicate work. However, there are some drawbacks. For instance, cutting straight with a single-edged knife can be tricky, as the blade tends to veer left. It takes practice to master this skill. Also, most Japanese knives cater to right-handed users, so left-handed people may have a harder time finding one.
Going deeper, Japanese cooking follows the Yin-Yang and Five Elements (陰陽五行説) concepts. In this belief, everything has two opposing, yet harmonious aspects. For thin-bladed Japanese knives, the blade side represents Yang, and the reverse side represents Yin. When peeling a daikon radish, using the Yang side creates a round shape, while the Yin side makes a square shape. Placing round daikon in a square (Yin) bowl and square daikon in a round (Yang) bowl creates a balanced, visually appealing presentation.
This traditional Japanese cuisine philosophy is essential for artisans to consider in their work. The deeper you dive, the more you discover its depth and complexity.
Characteristics of Western Knives
In Japan, Western kitchen knives are called "Gyuto," which means they're used for cutting beef. While Japanese cuisine focuses on fish and vegetables, Western cuisine mainly uses meat historically. Some popular Western knives include the versatile "Gyuto", the small and handy "Petit knife" for cutting fruits and vegetables, the "Yo-De-aba" for cutting and breaking bones with a thick blade, and the "Hone-suki" for dismantling meat and processing poultry. The Suji-biki is a long, thin knife, similar to a Japanese sashimi knife, perfect for cutting blocks of meat and slicing thin sashimi-like carpaccio.
Unlike Japanese knives, Western kitchen knives are made of stainless steel, which is rust-resistant, spill-proof, and sturdy. This makes them easy to use for home cooking that doesn't require detailed work.
Why do professional Japanese chefs use Japanese knives?
I believe using a Japanese knife is essential for authentic Japanese cooking. Professional Japanese chefs use these knives daily, and it's no wonder. If I tried to make a delicate kaiseki course with only a Western knife, it might be similar, but not as good as the authentic and professional dish. The difference is especially noticeable in sashimi slices, where even a radish on the side can spot the difference in gloss and texture.
Using the right Japanese knife for every task truly showcases the excellence of Japanese cuisine to the world. Craftsmen work hard to create sharp and easy-to-use Japanese kitchen knives, while chefs train and refine their skills to make the most of these knives, connecting with the ingredients and cooking process.
Of course, cuisines in every country are also amazing and have their unique characteristics, but using Japanese knives emphasizes the delicacy of Japanese cuisine. It's said that objects have a soul, so I'll continue to appreciate my kitchen knives and use them with care to cater the best for my customers.
How to care of Japanese knives
From the belief that "objects have souls," we chefs learn to treat cooking utensils with care during our training.
Kitchen knives are the most important, so we take care of them like they're part of us. People say you can tell a good cook by their knife, so we must prioritize taking care of them.
After using a knife, wipe it clean with a damp cloth. If you've cut sticky food and dirt sticks to the blade, use a soft cloth or sponge with hot tap water to wash it off gently, then wipe it well. At the end of the day, remember to:
- Sharpen your kitchen knives.
- Remove any rust from the blades.
- Wash and clean the handle too.
Here I will show you a little of each process that I usually do.
Sharpening Japanese Knives
Let's quickly learn how to sharpen knives. First, there are whetstones. We have natural whetstones (hard rocks) and artificial whetstones (made by baking abrasive grains and binders). Natural whetstones are rare and costly, so most people use artificial ones.
Generally, there are three types of stones:
- Coarse Grinding Stone (#80-400): Used to repair a blade that's very dull or lost its sharpness.
- Medium Sharpening Stone (#1000): The most common stone for restoring a dull blade's sharpness.
- Finishing Stone (#3000 or higher): Used for extra sharpness, like with sashimi knives. It makes the blade's surface smooth and clean.
Japanese chefs who are particular about their tools usually have all three types of whetstones.
To remove rust, use what we call an eraser or a cream cleaner (abrasive solution) on a cork material or an American Scrubber to lightly polish knives.
When polishing a kitchen knife, be sure to place the blade squarely on the cutting board and polish it cleanly to avoid injury.
The key is to hold the knife blade firmly on the cutting board with the thumb of your left hand to secure it in place.
Since the handle is the part of the knife we touch, it can collect germs. So, clean it at the end of the day. If you're right-handed, hold the knife tip with your left hand and wash it using neutral detergent and a sponge in your right hand.
Sometimes, I soak just the handle in a cup of diluted bleach to kill germs.
Finally, wipe the knife well with a dry, clean cloth, because moisture can cause it to rust quickly.
How to choose your Japanese knives
Since there are so many types of Japanese knives, you might be wondering which one to choose. But, it's not so difficult. Just think about what you'll be doing with the knife, as different tasks require different knives.
Many Japanese households use a single all-purpose knife called a santoku (三徳包丁) for meat, fish, and vegetables.
If you're serious about learning Japanese cooking, start with at least three knives: a thin-blade knife for vegetables, a deba knife for fish, and a sashimi knife for slicing sashimi. Other knives include a peeling knife for decorative vegetable cuts, a blowfish knife for fugu, a hamo knife for cutting pike conger's bones, a cleaver for eel, and a special soba knife for soba noodles, you can purchase these special knives depending on the ingredients you prepare regularly.
For professional work, you'll need each of these, but most tasks can be done with a thin-blade knife, sashimi knife, and de-eba knife. Start with these three, plus a gyuto and petit knife, and you'll be ready for serious Japanese cooking.
The right knife length depends on your needs. A thin-blade knife is around 24cm, a sashimi knife is 33-36cm, and a deba knife is 18-19.5cm, depending on the size of the fish. A gyuto is about 21-24cm, and a petit knife is about 15cm.
Use this guide to help you find the best knife for your needs by feeling it in your hand.
Recommended Brands by Professional Chefs
The favorite brands of Japanese kitchen knives used by chefs across Japan can vary based on the region. Since I trained in Tokyo, I'll share my experience there. It seems that "Masamoto (正本)" and "Aritsugu (有次)" are the most popular brands among the Japanese chefs I've worked with. In fact, if I were to buy a new knife, I'd choose either Masamoto or Aritsugu.
Of course, there are many other excellent brands, and I think handmade knives crafted by master knifemakers are both amazing and high-quality.
In the end, considering the same material, type, and length, I would rank the following brands:
- Tsukiji Aritsugu (築地有次)
- Tsukiji Masamoto (築地正本)
- Masamoto Sohonten (正本総本店)
In my personal opinion, you can't go wrong with any of these brands. However, I believe the most important thing is to hold each knife in your hand and feel it for yourself. For example, even though they're the same size, Adidas and Nike have a different feel and fit. Since a knife is an extension of your body, I recommend picking one up, if it's the right fit you will know "this is the one."
Japanese knives that I use at the moment
I mainly use kitchen knives of Shomoto Sohonten's knives, but I also have Aritsugu and Tsukiji Masamoto. I have been using some of these knives for nearly 30 years, and I have never thought "this brand is not good", and I think they are all good knives. I believe that depending on how you treat your knives, they can be good or bad.
To summarize, Japanese knives are more than just tools and choosing the right one is key to producing authentic Japanese food. I hope this article taught you something new about Japanese knives and will help you select the right knife for your needs.
I would be happy if you could remember that if you treat your knives with care, they will respond to your needs.
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