A Deep Dive into Japanese Kitchen Knives, Beloved by Chefs the World Over
In recent years, the glorious taste of Japanese cuisine has come to be lauded the world over. At the same time, Japanese kitchen knives (wabocho) as also gathering attention. Learning from the skills used in the crafting of Japanese swords, Japanese kitchen knives do not compromise on sharpness and are in high demand among western chefs. This article offers a comprehensive guide to the varieties and unique features of Japanese kitchen knives.
- A variety of types based on ingredients and purpose
- The difference between Japanese kitchen knives and Western knives
- 'Yanagiba' knives - Bringing you the best tasting sashimi
- 'Deba' knives- Perfect for larger fish and meat
- The 'usuba' knife - Used for cutting vegetables
- 'Santoku' knives - Used for a range of meats and vegetables
- There are many other varieties of specialized knives
- Maintaining your knives
- The history of Japanese kitchen knives and where they are made
- Search for knives in 'tool streets'
A variety of types based on ingredients and purpose
The most unique aspect of the Japanese kitchen knife is the sheer volume of different types available. In the past, Japanese cuisine was centered on seafood such as shellfish and other types of fish. For this reason, a number of different types of cooking utensils have developed in order to cater for the different varieties of seafood that strongly feature in the cuisine, such as horse mackerel, eel and octopus. Knives were one such utensil. For example, when preparing the fish or attempting to cut it into fillets, a pointed carver known as a 'deba' knife is used. When cutting it into sashimi, a special knife known as a 'yanagiba' knife can be used. Furthermore, when cutting vegetables, a rectangular-shaped knife with a thin blade known as a 'usuba' knife is recommended.
It is important to note that only professionals and those with a keen interest in all things culinary would actually own all of these knives, so you may not find all of the varieties of knives listed above in every household that you visit.
The most common knife used at home in Japan is the 'santoku' knife, which is designed to be multi-purpose.
The difference between Japanese kitchen knives and Western knives
While both Japanese and Western knives may bear the same name, they possess completely different capabilities. The most easily recognizable of these is that while Western knives are double-beveled, Japanese kitchen knives are single beveled. This means that there is only a blade on one side of the knife. Because of this, the one blade that they do have is more acute, making it sharper and giving it a cleaner cut. One other characteristic of Japanese kitchen knives is that they make it difficult to cut something cleanly straight down. This is also owing to their single blade composition.
Another point of difference with Western knives is the grip. With western knives, the blade and handle form one connected structure, however, with Japanese knives, the blade is generally inserted into a wooden frame, to be used as a handle. If the handle breaks or is damaged, you can simply replace it and use the knife as you had been before.
'Yanagiba' knives - Bringing you the best tasting sashimi
The 'yanagiba' knife is perhaps the most well-known variety of Japanese kitchen knives outside of Japan. The most striking aspect of this knife is that the blade resembles that of a samurai sword in terms of length. This is also said to be the first Japanese kitchen knife that chefs from overseas began to show interest in.
The 'yanagiba' knife also goes by the name of the sashimi knife. As you can imagine from this name, it is commonly used in the creation of sashimi. As the blade is long, it can cleanly separate the flesh of the fish from the bones. This means that no more of the flesh is damaged than is necessary, giving rise to beautifully tasting and perfectly textured sashimi.
'Deba' knives- Perfect for larger fish and meat
The 'deba' knife is a type of weighty pointed cleaver that has a thick blade and is used mainly to prepare fish and cut them into fillets. It can also cut into cartilage and therefore it is often used to separate the different parts of chicken.
Owing to the fact that it can cut through bone as well as meat and flesh, it is thought of as a strong and sturdy knife. This means that it is less suited to more delicate tasks.
However, the tough cuts of meat and bone that it cuts through give rise to blade damage. For this reason, it is necessary to regularly maintain this type of blade.
The 'usuba' knife - Used for cutting vegetables
The 'usuba' knife has a thin blade that is comparatively long. It is used most commonly in the preparation of vegetables, such as peeling and chopping, and it is indeed most suited to this type of work. There are some chefs who use this type of knife to delicately cut vegetables into the shape of petals and lucky charms. This process is known as 'kazarikiri', or decorative cutting.
Moreover, because they are heavier than you would expect, these knives can also be used to cut through the skins of larger vegetables and fruits like pumpkins and watermelons with ease.
'Santoku' knives - Used for a range of meats and vegetables
'Santoku' knives are used for a wide variety of purposes. They are also known as 'banno' knives (universal knives) or 'bunka' knives (culture knives). While it is classified as a Japanese kitchen knife, it is unique in that it does have a double-sided blade. This knife is not aimed at professional chefs, as it was originally designed for use in the home.
The 'santoku' (three virtues) referred to in the name are meat, fish and vegetables, signifying that this knife can be used to cut all three. These knives were originally modeled after butcher's knives, with a rounded back of the knife to increase its ability to cut fish and vegetables. Moreover, in order to make it easier to be used in the household, it was made smaller than a butcher's knife.
As santoku knives are not adept at dealing with fish, in the past these knives were sold in sets with 'deba' knives. However, nowadays, it is more common for households only to be in possession of 'santoku' knives.
There are many other varieties of specialized knives
There are many other varieties of specialized Japanese kitchen knives; 'takohiki' knives, 'sobakiri' knives (used to prepare soba), small kitchen knives, 'nakiri' knives (used to cut vegetables), as well as fugu knives and eel knives.
'Takohiki' knives are a type of sashimi knife, and while tako means octopus in Japanese, these knives are not necessarily used for preparing octopus.
In Japan, it is often said that the culture of the Kanto region (of which Tokyo is the largest city) and the Kansai region (of which Osaka is the largest city) vary greatly. In the past, the sashimi knife used in both regions was also different. The 'yanagiba' knife, introduced above, was used in the Kansai region, with the Kanto region preferring the 'takohiki' knife.
The 'takohiki' knife does not come to a sharp point, it is rectangular. It would appear that the 'yanagiba' knife is now more often used than the 'takohiki'.
There are also similarly two different forms of the 'usuba' knife. The Kanto variety comes to a point, while the Kansai variety has a slightly rounded back.
Maintaining your knives
In order to maintain the sharpness of your Japanese kitchen knives, maintenance is essential. Nowadays, the majority of knives are made from stainless steel that does not easily succumb to rust, however, this is not the case for traditional Japanese kitchen knives that were made from other types of steel. As this rust sets in, the cutting capacity of the knife is lessened and it becomes necessary to sharpen the knife regularly.
In Japan, grindstones known as 'toishi' have been used since ancient times for the explicit purpose of sharpening knives. This grindstone contains polishing agents and when it is covered in water and the blade of the knife passed over it, its sharpness will be returned.
In order to sharpen the knife, it is necessary first to let the grindstone soak up some water. Therefore at least an hour before sharpening the knife you should place the grindstone in water.
After the grindstone is saturated in water, the blade of the knife is placed against the stone and, using all of the surface of the stone, the blade is moved up and down. If the knife has a double-blade then both sides must be sharpened, however, if it is a single-blade knife then it is only necessary to sharpen the face with the blade.
The most important thing when sharpening a knife is ensuring the surface of the stone is even and smooth. If there are bumps in the stone then the knife will not be properly sharpened. Therefore, in order to ensure that you can adequately sharpen your knife, it is necessary to maintain the grindstone correctly. If you rub two grindstones together this will smooth them out. You can also make use of a special tool for smoothing out grindstones.
The method for maintaining steel knives is different than for stainless steel knives, with steel knives being easier to maintain and cutting better than their stainless counterparts. While stainless is harder than other steel and therefore the sharpness lasts for longer, it is precisely because it is harder than other materials that it is more difficult to sharpen.
For this reason, professional chefs in Japan prefer steel knives that they can sharpen repeatedly and keep for a long time.
The history of Japanese kitchen knives and where they are made
There are many different regions where Japanese kitchen knives are made but there are three areas that are particularly celebrated for their knives. They are Sakai in Osaka Prefecture, Tsubame-sanjo in Niigata Prefecture and Seki in Gifu Prefecture. These areas were historically renowned for their ironworks and the manufacturing of goods such as katana, canons and agricultural machinery. Here is a brief outline of the different characteristics of the knives made in the different regions.
Sakai - A city where the history of iron processing continues to this day
Sakai City is located in southern Osaka Prefecture, a one-hour train ride from Kansai International Airport.
Sakai has been engaging in iron processing for 1,700 years. The reason for this is that there are giant graves here.
In olden days, Sakai was home to a number of massive tombs, called kofun, of the powerful who ruled both the region and the country. Among them, the largest measures 840 meters in height and has a width of 654 meters. It was said to have belonged to an emperor who ruled over Japan.
In order to erect these tombs, it was necessary to manufacture iron tools to dig out and transport soil. This was the impetus for the iron manufacturing industry here.
Subsequently, as technology advanced, katana came to be created here, and then, approximately 470 years ago, the culture of cannons was imported from Europe, meaning that this area also developed as a manufacturing center for canons.
Because of this history, Sakai City is even now home to a number of manufacturers of knives, and their talents have been granted recognition by the government as traditional handicrafts. Moreover, the area is full of historical documents related to the manufacturing of knives.
Tsubame-sanjo - Developed through the manufacture of agricultural machinery and nails
Tsubame-sanjo is one of the regions of Japan renowned for the quality of its rice and is found in the center of the prefecture of Niigata. More specifically, it is largely comprised of the two cities of Tsubame and Sanjo. It has had a long history of agriculture and for that reason it is conjectured that they also had a history of creating agricultural tools and machinery from iron.
The iron processing of Tsubame-sanjo is also said to have roots in the nail manufacturing carried out in the area. This was recommended to the local farmers by government officials as a form of side business in times gone by. Approximately 460 years after this, the feudal lords of the time ordered blacksmiths to form groups here, spurring the development of the iron industry. It is for this reason that the professionals here engaged in making agricultural machinery and tools used in construction. It would appear that they were also involved in the manufacture of knives as part of these endeavors.
In recent times, the number of craftspeople working on knives in Tsubame-sanjo is decreasing, however the area remains renowned for its manufacturing sector, centered around the large number of small factories found there, including those engaged in iron processing.
Both Tsubame City and Sanjo City are located around 2 hours away by bus or train from Niigata Airport.
Seki - Where famous swords beloved by warriors were created
Seki City in Gifu Prefecture is known as a town where the craftsmanship of sword making continues to be passed on, even to this day. Once a month, a live demonstration of how to make katana takes place in the city.
Around 800 years ago, Japan entered a period whereby shoguns and warriors came to hold the reigns of political power. At that time, a large group of katana sword makers came to settle in the city of Seki, thus establishing the area as a center of sword making. After this occurred, the swords manufactured in Seki came to be famous and beloved among warriors.
The craftspeople of Seki continue to leverage the technology involved in making katana and are ranked among the best knife manufacturers in the world. Every year in October a cutlery festival is held in Seki with a large number of famous companies coming to sell their wares. There are some rare knives that you will only find here and displays of new custom knives.
Seki City is located 2 hours by train from Chubu Centrair International Airport.
Search for knives in 'tool streets'
Now that you are acquainted with the three main centers of Japanese kitchen knife manufacturing in Japan: Sakai, Sanjo and Seki, there are probably some of you who are not enthused by the prospect of traveling so far to get your hands on a knife. No need to fear, there are plenty of stores that deal in cooking utensils found in districts known as 'tool streets' and 'tool towns'.
If you visit a specialist knife store you are sure to be surprised by the quality and choice on offer. However, when you actually get one in your hands, your heart will be stolen by the sharpness of the blade and the ease of use of the knife.
If you're in Tokyo, take a trip to 'Kappabashi Dougu Street'
'Kappabashi Dougu Street' is located in the Taito District of Tokyo and boasts over 100 years of history as a commercial district. Along this 800-meter long street, there are a number of different stores dealing in cooking utensils packed together. As you would expect, there are also a number of specialized knife outlets located in this area.
This street was originally full of wholesalers, frequented by smaller retailers and restaurant owners, however, in recent years it has become popular with tourists with the numbers of guests from overseas rising in recent years.
If you are coming by JR train lines, alight at Ueno or Uguisudani Stations on the Yamanote Line or Keihin-Tohoku Line. It is about 15 minutes' walk away from either of these stations. If you are taking the Tokyo Metro Ginza Line, then you should get off at Tawaramachi Station. It is then a 5-minute walk to Kappabashi Dougu Street.
If you are in Osaka, take a trip to 'Kitchenware Street'
Kitchenware Street is located in Osaka's Chuo District and began as a commercial area when stores selling tools and miscellaneous goods opened their doors on this street, owing to its status as a road leading up to a shrine. It boasts over 130 years of history. However, it is not just home to specialist stores, you will also find events such as workshops and exhibitions being held here.
It is close to Osaka's central entertainment and commercial district, known as Minami, meaning you can enjoy a spot of shopping or take in a public concert, play or comedy performance at one of the many theatres.
Kitchen Street is pleasantly easy to get to and located 3 minutes walk from Namba Station on the Nankai Main Line or the same distance from Namba Station on the Subway Midosuji Line.
Japanese kitchen knives developed in tandem with Japanese cuisine. While you are tucking into your favorite Japanese food and enjoying the taste, spare a moment for the knife used to prepare it. Why not take the opportunity to try one out for yourself and experience the skill of the craftsmanship that goes into making them?
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.
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