What makes Japanese knives so special? Centuries of knife and sword-making pedigree, perfect steel, and precision in the craft. Regarded as some of the finest culinary tools they hold a world-renowned reputation among chefs and passionate cooks. If you have been dreaming about getting a couple for yourself or you want to ingratiate yourself with the cook in your life, then find out more about the mystery and legacy around Japanese knives.
The Craft Behind the Blade
Even if you are not very familiar with Japanese history and culture, you recognise instantly that there is something awe-inspiring about the Samurai swords, and knowing that same sword-smith and artisan craft shaped your Japanese cooking knives makes you treasure it. Knifemaking is a long tradition in Japan with generations of expertise and dedication to the pursuit of excellence. And this knowledge and experience are what make the process of forging, blade-shaping, and tempering so much more than producing a piece of steel with a handle.
The Steel That Steals the Glory
The reasons why Japanese cooking knives are so sought-after in the world of chefs are features of steel that make them harder, thinner, and sharper. The knives are made from high-carbon steel called Hagane, which can be forged to a high hardness but still easy to sharpen. The core is soft iron layered with harder steel that can be either traditional Japanese steel Aogami, corrosion-resistant steel, or powder steel.
Modern blades can have multi-layer Damascus steel that retains sharpness for long periods which is why chefs appreciate it. Compared to European knives they are lighter and have a thinner blade allowing for more precise work. The hybrid types are double bevel or ‘Ryoba’ which means sharpened on each side, whereas the traditional types ’Kataba’ are sharpened on one edge which makes them excellent for specific uses.
A Knife for Every Task
Japanese kitchen knives are designed for specific tasks, so knowing which knife is best suited for which purpose is essential if you want to get the best use out of them. Since these knives have a rich history that is worth knowing, we’ll give you their cool Japanese names.
• Gyutou – is the Japanese version of a chef’s knife and the crown jewel of knives. One of the most popular all-purpose knives across the world comes in medium to large blades, a tall heel, and a pointed tip. As its name suggests (cow sword) you can use it for rock chopping, push-cutting, and pull-cutting of different kinds of meat, fruit, and vegetables.
• Santoku – is a multi-purpose knife with a gently curved blade. Its ‘three virtues’ which is what its name means, are slicing, chopping, and dicing, or according to others, it can be used for cutting meat, vegetables, and fish.
• Nakiri – is a traditional vegetable knife with a straight edge and a broad, flat profile that allows you to use the entire cutting edge. Chopping vegetables with this rectangular-shaped knife is not only easy but fun.
• Petty – is a small utility knife with a 4-6 inches blade that is perfect for fine, detailed work and precision tasks.
• Honesuki – or boning knife has a thicker spine and pointed tip which makes it ideal for small butchery tasks, breaking down chickens and cutting through soft joints.
• Usuba – is a traditional single-bevel knife similar to Nakiri, but recommended for experts. It is suitable for elaborate and precise slices, especially in Japanese cuisine. The tall, thin blade cuts through vegetables and fruit with minimal damage to the skin.
• Deba – is a special knife for breaking down fish as well as cutting through bones. If you cook a lot of fish then this sturdy knife with razor-sharp edge is the perfect tool for your kitchen arsenal.
• Yanagiba – a long fillet knife that sushi experts use when working with delicate fish. The ‘willow blade’ has a long and slim blade curved at the tip. Perfectly sharpened will slice sashimi like no other knife. This serious blade requires some lectures before amateur sushi enthusiasts want to give it try
• Kuritsuke – is a dream knife used by executive chefs in Japan. It holds a status symbol and demands a set of skills for its use. It has a blade that is between Gyuto and Yanagiba, but what makes it one of a kind is the shape of the tip – a heel that angles down towards the edge where it meets the point. A fantastic tool for preparing intricate fish dishes.
Sharpening Is a Skill
In the Japanese culinary tradition, it is critical to prepare knives for peak performance. Just like a musical instrument, the knives need fine-tuning from time to time. Japanese cooking knives are not to be sharpened with knife sharpeners or honing steel usually used for double-bladed Western knives. Instead, you need a whetstone which is the only way to restore the original blade.
To do this flawlessly, you need to master the skill of the meticulous strokes needed for adjusting the angle and technique, especially for single-bevel knives or asymmetrical double-bevel. It might seem intimidating at first, but with practice, you can learn to personalise the sharpness to your needs. If you are not confident in your skills, you might want to take it to a professional in a reputable Japanese knife shop.
Proper Maintaining for a Longer Lifespan
Maintaining your set of Japanese knives is crucial to their lifespan. Depending on the steel used in their making, leaving them covered in food for periods of time might corrode the blade, so always wash them after use. Never in a dishwasher though. Wipe them well after washing to prevent rusting and to avoid chipping the blade on some fancy granite board, use wood, plastic, or bamboo chopping boards.
Japanese knives are a league on their own, a golden standard in culinary arts. Their elegant design, sophisticated look, durability, and exquisite performance bring them to the very top of kitchen tools. Used by the skilled hands of chefs, they enhance and preserve your ingredients and elevate the flavour of the dish.