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I Need Japanese Steel: Traditional Japanese Chef's Knives

Updated on February 15, 2015
Samurai carrying katana, circa 1860
Samurai carrying katana, circa 1860 | Source

What's so special about Japanese steel?

Japan is famous for lots of different things. Sushi, manga, Godzilla... the list goes on. Perhaps one of their more notable exports is the legendary katana, the iconic sword carried by the samurai warrior caste. Bruce Willis used one in Pulp Fiction, and Uma Thurman famously annihilated a legion of Yakuza with one in Kill Bill: Vol.1.

Almost three feet of razor sharp folded steel, the katana is widely considered to be one of the most successful swords ever made. Created from tamahagane steel with a high carbon content, the blade of a katana can be made so sharp that it is capable of slicing through a tossed silk handkerchief. The art of sword-making was passed down from father to son, and the makers of the highest quality swords were revered as master craftsmen.

With the demise of the samurai in the late 19th century, the sword-smiths found themselves out of a job. With the katana reduced to a largely ceremonial role, many sword-smiths began making cutlery, bringing their sword-making skills to the kitchen.

Shigefusa yanagiba
Shigefusa yanagiba | Source

Carbon vs Stainless

Most Western kitchen knives are made from stainless steel. This is all well and good, as stainless steel is tough, durable and rust-resistant, but there are a few drawbacks to using stainless knives. One is maintenance: stainless knives are "soft" steel, meaning that while they can be made very sharp and are chip-resistant, they tend to lose their edge fairly quickly and require regular strokes on a chef's steel to keep them sharp. The main drawback however, is that no matter how much you sharpen them, they will never be as sharp as a carbon steel knife.

Carbon steel is an umbrella term for non-stainless steel with a high carbon content. Where stainless steel includes additives such as nickel, chromium and vanadium, carbon steel is just steel and carbon. This makes the steel very hard, which in turn means the edge can be made far sharper than a stainless blade, and it will also stay sharper for longer. The price you pay for this improvement in cutting power is of course rust. Because carbon steel isn't stainless, it will rust and corrode if not cared for properly. If you own a carbon steel knife, it will require a higher level of care than a stainless one.

Bladesmith Toshihisa Yoshizawa hard at work
Bladesmith Toshihisa Yoshizawa hard at work | Source

So Japanese knives are better because they're made from carbon steel?

Well, partially, yes. If you're a keen amateur or a professional chef, have a decent understanding of kitchen knives and don't mind the care necessary to keep your knife in top condition, then you should definitely consider switching to carbon.

But if you want a knife that outstrips all others in terms of sharpness, quality and performance, then you need to go Japanese. Most knives you can buy are mass-produced, generic blades manufactured to a standard template. While some of these are very high-quality indeed, they can't come close to a hand-forged knife created by a master craftsman using techniques steeped in over five hundred years of blade-making tradition. Think of it like the difference between a wine from an enormous California vineyard, bottled in 2014, and a 1954 Pouilly-Fumé that has been lovingly stored down the decades. While the former could possibly be very good, it's going to pale into insignificance when compared to the latter.

This is how sharp Japanese knives are...

What kind of knife should I get?

So you've chosen to get yourself a traditional Japanese knife. But of course, like anything else there's so much choice on offer that it can all be a bit bewildering. This segment will hopefully help you decide which knife is right for you.

Before we look at different knife styles, let's take a moment to think about the forging process. There are two main styles of forging, kasumi and honyaki. Kasumi is generally the cheaper of the two, and it involves encasing or "jacketing" a high-carbon steel core within a softer iron shell. When sharpened, the high-carbon centre is exposed as the cutting edge, while the main body of the blade is a softer iron. This is done for two reasons: the high-carbon steel used by Japanese bladesmiths is more expensive due to its unique manufacturing process, so by using less the cost of the knife is kept at an acceptable level; and also because high-carbon steel is very hard and consequently brittle. By protecting it with a layer of softer iron, the blade is less likely to shatter when dropped or struck.

Kasumi translates to "mist", and you can see the mist-like patterns created by the forging process here.
Kasumi translates to "mist", and you can see the mist-like patterns created by the forging process here.

Honyaki knives differ in that they are forged entirely from high-carbon steel, the same way as their ancestor, the katana. This makes them more expensive, but they are also stiffer and retain their sharpness longer than their kasumi cousins. Honyaki knives tend to be found in high-end sushi kitchens, where the need for precision cutting requires a phenomenal level of sharpness and edge retention.

Unless you're a Michelin-starred sushi chef or you really want what is basically a miniature samurai sword, you're probably going to be just fine with a kasumi blade rather than honyaki.

From L-R: Yanagiba X2, santoku, nakiri, gyuto
From L-R: Yanagiba X2, santoku, nakiri, gyuto | Source

Santoku? Yanagiba? Gyuto?

Now that we've dealt with the forging process, let's move on to the actual blade style. Think about what you'll be using the knife for: Will you be using it to perform a wide variety of jobs? Or do you need it for a specialist task such as filleting fish or butchering poultry? Outlined below are several of the more common Japanese knife styles

  • Gyuto - The gyuto is an all-purpose kitchen knife based on the design of the Western chef's knife. They come in a range of sizes from 6" all the way up to 12", and follow the classic Western pattern of a wedge-shaped blade tapering to a point, with a double bevel (sharpened on both sides). This style of knife is considered to be one of the easiest to use when transitioning from Western knives.
  • Santoku - The santoku is the Japanese equivalent of the chef's knife, and its name means "three virtues." This refers to its multi-purpose nature as it excels at slicing, dicing and mincing. The double bevelled blade of a santoku ranges from 6" to 10", and rather than being wedge-shaped like the gyuto, it has a "sheeps-foot" profile. They are slightly trickier to learn to use than a gyuto, as the blade cannot be rocked as much; instead it relies on a vertical slicing motion.
  • Petty - The Japanese equivalent of a paring or utility knife. Petty knives generally have a triangular profile blade and come in both single and double-bevelled versions. Ranging from 2" to 6", they are used for smaller tasks such as slicing mushrooms, gutting small fish etc., and they are considered an essential knife in a chef's arsenal, much the same as their Western relatives.
  • Deba - A heavy single-bevel knife used primarily for filleting fish. Essentially a heavier version of the santoku, deba knives can be anything from 7" to a whopping 15" in length. Designed to behead and fillet fish, the extra weight and the composition of the steel help protect the knife from damage when chopping through fish bones. Deba knives can also be used for other heavy duty tasks such as butchering poultry or chopping thick-skinned vegetables like squash and pumpkin, although they should never be used on large-diameter bones.
  • Yanagi-ba - Sometimes shortened to yanagi, yanagi-ba translates to "willow-blade." They are long, thin blades up to 12" in length and are exclusively single-beveled. They are designed for slicing raw fish, and the sharpest examples are capable of cutting paper-thin slices with no tearing at all. The yanagi-ba is perfect for sushi and sashimi, and you will struggle to achieve the necessary precision required without one.
  • Nakiri - A vegetable cleaver. In the West, vegetables are sliced and diced with a chef's knife, using a rocking motion, back and forth. The nakiri is used to make repeated vertical cuts, straight down. This results in less tearing, breaking etc., and once you've mastered its use the results can be far superior to the Western method. However, don't be tempted to use it on bone because of its cleaver shape; you'll ruin your expensive blade in just a couple of blows.



Using a nakiri vegetable cleaver.

So where do I get one?

The Internet is chock-full of sites offering genuine hand-forged Japanese knives, a quick Google search should be all you need to get started. A word of caution: single-bevel knives are predominantly made for right-handed users. If you're left-handed and want a single-bevel knife, chances are you will either be waiting a long time for one to become available, or you will have to pay through the nose to have one custom-made.

So what are you waiting for? Go get yourself a Japanese knife right now and prepare to have your mind blown by the sheer awesomeness of their cutting power!

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