Whether we are talking sushi or the elegantly cut vegetables in certain dishes, Japanese cuisine is famous for stylized food presentation requiring extraordinary knife skill.
Master Japanese chefs are true artists and, just like any other artists, there are tools they use to create their masterpieces. Japanese knives are to a chef what paint brushes are to a painter. And like brushes, there are different types of Japanese knives that each serve a specific purpose.
Japanese Knives – Cult-Like Passion
Want to turn your dishes from ordinary to stunning? You might think a Japanese knife or two might be the key. You are not alone!
The beauty of Japanese cuisine comes in part from their amazing knives. As a result, Japanese knives have a massive following that for some becomes almost cult-like. Once you’ve used a high-quality Japanese knife, you might understand why.
Japanese knives are activity-specific and their designs and manufacturing have been refined over centuries. The result are knives that marry form and function in often surprising but always satisfying ways.
Among the vast assortment of Japanese knives are special all-purpose blades that can fillet delicate meats and peel tissue-thin skin from fruits.
There are also massive cleavers that can cut through huge slabs of meat and whole chickens effortlessly.
And that’s just the beginning!
The Trend to Healthy Eating
The recent surge in interest in Japanese knives tracks with the trend toward more healthy eating. As people prepare more of their own meals, more people are looking to improve their culinary skills, including their knife skills.
This has led many people to look for better quality and different types of knives, including Japanese knives. This increased demand has led to an increase in the number of companies manufacturing Japanese knives.
While the highest-quality Japanese knives are still too expensive for most casual home chefs, there are more options that ever for good-quality Japanese knives at a reasonable price.
Types of Japanese Knives
Owning a set of high-quality Japanese knives can be incredibly rewarding for the aspiring home chef.
This is especially true for those who seek to become proficient in Japanese cuisine, where knife techniques are often founded upon how Samurais used katanas in battle.
However, choosing the right Japanese knife for the job can get overwhelming. The best option is to start by learning about these knives in both practice and theory if you are to reach your dreams of culinary artistry.
Let’s start with the basics and introduce you to the kinds of Japanese knives you are likely to come across and use during your culinary journey. Here’s a list of 14 of the most useful knives for preparing Japanese cuisine, with a brief explanation of how each is used.
Known as the multipurpose knife of the bunch, the Santoku is perhaps the most popular of all the Japanese knife types on this list. It has a pointed tip, circular top, and slightly curved blade that creates a shape many users refer to as the sheep’s foot.
When translated, Santoku means “three uses,” referring to the ingredients it is most commonly used to prepare: fish, meat, and veggies. It can also refer to its three main purposes: chopping, slicing, and dicing.
The Santoku is an all-around kitchen tool that performs extraordinarily well for general cutting and slicing needs. It is basically the Japanese knife version of the classic Chef knife.
It has a razor-sharp, ultra-thin blade that’s exceptionally sturdy, making it great for both slicing through thick pieces of meat and peeling the thin skin off tomatoes.
When choosing a Santoku, select one with a handle that’s easy to control for a range of users, even those with small hands. Remember, these are extremely sharp knives, so looking at their protective measures is essential. Pick a knife with a protective finger guard, so you won’t have to worry about nicking yourself, especially as a beginner.
The Nakiri is a vegetable knife. This Japanese knife possesses a broad, flat, straight-edged profile that makes it look similar to a cleaver. Like a cleaver, it’s also great for slicing, dicing, and chopping vegetables. The Nakiri has a narrow, light, and flexible body perfect for push-cutting and sliding chopped ingredients from the board to the pan or bowl.
Handcrafted Nakiri knives are the optimum choice. You especially want to select those that have been handcrafted in Japan, the country where these knives originated from. In that way, you can acquire a knife whose quality is unlike most you have seen on the market.
The best Nakiris are those whose blades have been ice-tempered, making them corrosion-resistant and incredibly sturdy. They should offer a comfortable, ergonomic grip that makes cutting or chopping vegetables safe and easy even for beginners.
Like the Santoku, the Gyuto is a Japanese knife also classified as a chef knife. It is an all-around cutting tool that seamlessly slices and cuts ingredients like fish, meat, and vegetables. This ability is owed to its perfect blade length and roundness. The Gyuto blade, particularly its shape and thickness, is created in much the same way Samurai sword blades were.
Due to this special technique, the knife slices food fibers impeccably instead of crushing them and leaving them looking less than appealing. In addition, the fact that the Gyuto blade slices the fibers makes it conducive to preserving the freshness of the meat, vegetables, and other ingredients it cuts.
Design and sharpness are the two main qualities to look for in the Gyuto. One of the standout features of a premium Gyuto is its ability to retain an ultra-sharp edge over time.
Deba is the classic butcher’s knife version of a Japanese knife. You should be able to tell based on the structure of the blade and handle profile exactly what this knife is for. If you’re familiar with Japanese knives, one look is all it should take.
The Deba has a special blade meant especially for filleting fish efficiently without doing any form of damage to the flesh. Sure, you need a bit of skill to accomplish this, but the Deba’s blade should make it easier for you either way.
You should have no problem cutting through small bones, but larger ones are a different story and should be meant for another Japanese knife type. Also, keep in mind that the Deba isn’t a cleaver that can cut through tough bones and joints as if they were nothing.
The Petty is comparable to the conventional western paring knife, though it is smaller and a lot more handy.
It’s a great utility knife that is versatile enough to handle general peeling, chopping veggies, slicing fruits, and performing various paring tasks equally well.
If you’re looking to master a knife type as complicated as the Gyuto, the petty would be a great place to start.It’s designed especially for getting you accustomed to the shape and sharper edges of a larger Japanese knife.
The market should spoil you for choice where this type of Japanese knife is concerned.
That said, it’s vital for you to know what to look for in this kind of blade. A comfortable grip and easy maneuverability are among the top. The ideal petty knife would be one you can use as both a chef knife and a paring knife.
With its blade, you should find it easy to filet fish and break down poultry, beef, and pork.
Another vegetable knife on our list is the Usuba.
It’s perfect for slicing and dicing fruits and vegetables without oxidation or browning, affecting the look and taste.
This Japanese knife may possess a tall, rectangular blade that can cut larger veggies with ease. However, hard pits located in the center of certain fruits can damage the blade easily.
A Japanese knife version of a carving knife, the Sujihiki possesses a long, thin dual-edged blade that can slice through both meat and herbs with relative ease.
The Yanagi is the Western version of this knife.
It is similar to the Gyuto in that it can successfully preserve the integrity of the food it slices, making it the perfect knife to separate flesh from bone or skin from flesh.
You can also use it to trim fat from larger portions of meat or slice off fish skin.
Now, we have the Yanagi or the sushi knife.
If you love to frequent sushi restaurants, you may have already seen these exceptional knives at work. In the very capable hands of professional sushi chefs, this Japanese knife type can create culinary magic.
Use it to master cutting nigiri and sashimi, serving each dish in a way that pleases your loved ones.
The Yanagi has a long, narrow blade made of non-stick, high-grade carbon steel similar to the materials used in ancient Japanese sword-crafting.
Yanagi is Japanese for “willow blade,” an apt name considering how you can cut evenly through a chunk of fish with the pull-cut technique using this particular blade. In a western blade, a push-cutting method is likely to be used instead.
The Honesuki is a superb bone-cutting tool with a triangle-shaped blade whose length equals its handle’s length. That’s why it’s ideal for skinning and boning small woodland creatures.
Originally, this knife was used on rabbits and chickens, but it should also be useful on larger meat portions and fish.
You shouldn’t force the Honesuki blade through tough bones or joints, but it should slice through tendons and cartilage effortlessly.
Chefs in Japan’s hospitality industry consider the Kiritsuke a status symbol that should only be used by the head chef of a particular restaurant.
This also has to do with the precise culinary skills one would need to handle this knife correctly.
This Japanese knife type is a combination of the Yanagi and the Gyuto, as it holds specific features of both. The edge can come with either a single or double bevel, the latter allowing for the double-tapping technique.
Beginners may have trouble using this knife, but it should work wonders in the hands of a seasoned professional chef. It’s also always best to use in settings where there’s no one else in charge but you.
11. Udon Kiri
The name Udon Kiri suggests that this Japanese knife type is meant for one thing: creating udon noodles.
The process requires a blade shaped so that it’s not even half the length of the handle.This short blade length is necessary for forming the unique udon noodle shape, though Kasha and Soba variations exist, too.
In the two other variations, the handle-to-blade length ratio is a bit different and is determined by the different shapes of the noodles. That said, the blade used for all these noodle versions should be long and straight.
There should be no curve so that the Udon Kiri cuts straight to the board when it pushes through the dough. This ensures a clean edge after each slice.
Takobiki is one of the best Japanese knife types for one of the most basic food preparation activities: slicing.
Sushi chefs favor this knife over the longer, more rounded blade of the Yanagi. It is safer for beginners and when working in close quarters.
The knife has a narrow profile and is squared-off at the ends, giving a striking resemblance to a straight razor. The similarities don’t stop there, as the knife also has an extremely sharp edge ideal for slicing vegetables, chicken breast, and fish.
The Mukimono is a Japanese knife type that allows you to create intricate carvings from fruits, vegetables, and even soft meat. It’s basically a paring and carving knife in one.
It has an Usuba-like blade that’s slightly thinner and smaller but delivers equally well for general cooking purposes, like paring, cutting, and slicing more delicate ingredients.
Any aspiring chef should make it a point to acquire one for their knife collection. As you can imagine, there’s nothing quite like this blade when it comes to creating exquisite garnishes.
This Japanese knife has a long blade and serrated edge that gives it a striking resemblance to the traditional western bread knife.
Not surprisingly, it’s used for the same purpose as its western counterpart. It has a jagged-tooth edge and elegant, elongated blade that makes sawing through tough bread crust easy as pie.
With this knife, you slice right through without smashing the loaf’s soft fibers.
How Do You Take Care of a Japanese Knife?
Once you have invested in Japanese knives, PLEASE take care of them. Good-quality knives can last for decades if maintained properly.
When it comes to using and caring for the different types of Japanese knives, there are quite a few things to keep in mind.
- Japanese knives are sharper and more delicate than their Western cousins, so you want to take extra care when washing them.
This means NO DISHWASHERS! Hand wash your knives with mild dish soap and then dry thoroughly immediately.
- You make the blades and tips prone to chipping or breaking when you handle them roughly. Be careful twisting or flexing the blade when you cut because you could crack it.
- Using the right cutting surface is essential. Always use a good chopping board when using these knives.
NEVER cut on glass, stone, or metal surfaces. Stick to wood or plastic cutting boards to prevent your knives from chipping or dulling.
- Be very careful sharpening your Japanese knives. Avoid using electric sharpeners and that honing steel you have in the knife block on your counter.
Your best option is to take your knife to a professional sharpener specializing in Japanese knives (the manufacturer may offer sharpening services).
If you want to do it yourself, learning to use a whetstone is your best option. This takes knowledge and practice so start with knives other than your prized Yanagi!
Why Use a Japanese Knife?
Japanese knives are some of the best kitchen knives in the world.
You’ll find some are great all-purpose knives, while others are designed for a specific culinary purpose.
At the end of the day, these knives are extraordinary at what they’re meant to do, and learning more about them will give you the greatest edge in your culinary journey.