Japanese kitchen knives are crafted to varying degrees in accordance with the traditional blacksmithing processes of Japan. These knives come with four common types of characteristics namely handles, blade grind, steel and construction. Sakai, located in Osaka, is the originating point of most of the top-quality Japanese cutlery. In Sakai, the manufacture of steel knives began in the 16th century, when the Portuguese introduced tobacco to Japan and to craft knives for chopping tobacco. During the ‘Tokugawa shogunate’, the knives industry of Sakai experienced a substantial boost, which accorded a unique seal of approval and increased its repute for quality. Another popular center for knifesmiths is the Miki city. It’s well renowned throughout the country for its knife making traditions. The knives and tools produced in Miki help recall the honor of Japanese steelmaking. Most of the Miki producers are small businesses run by families where craftsmanship is given more importance compared to volume and they typically manufacture fewer numbers of knives a day. Seki, Gifu is considered as the abode of modern Japanese cutlery. Here, state-of-the-art technology and manufacturing has upgraded ancient forging dexterities to manufacture world-class ranges of laminated and stainless steel kitchen knives that have received fame across the world. Some other prominent knife manufacturing centers of Japan are:
Types of steels used to make Japanese knives
Stainless steel has been defined as a steel alloy that has 10.5% minimum Chromium content by mass. One major benefit of stainless steel is high corrosion resistance that makes it fairly easy to maintain compared to the Carbon steel variety, which may rust quite easily, if not appropriately cared for. Stainless steel knives are especially useful for people who deal with wet or moist foods, acidic foods like fruits, or salty foods. Another benefit of these types of knives is that as long as any other alloying element isn’t blended in significant volume, Chromium develops bonds with some amount of carbon which leads to production of Chromium Chloride – a very robust ceramic compound that enhances the edge retention characteristics of knives. Some key types of stainless steels used in the production of Japanese knives include:
- Stainless steel: Comes with a carbon content of below 0.5% and poor edge retention capacity. This is very difficult to sharpen and re-sharpening is required almost after every use.
- High carbon stainless steel: Contains less than 0.8% of carbon content with good retention quality. Sharpening is moderately easy and re-sharpening is needed every 4 to 6 weeks.
- Stainless steel with Molybdenum Vanadium: Comes with less than 0.5% of carbon content and adequate edge retention capacity. Sharpening is an uphill task for this type and re-sharpening is required almost every week.
This is an alloy of carbon and iron, in which the fundamental alloying component is carbon. These can rust easily compared to their stainless steel peers. Carbon steels react with different acidic foods and onions and begin to develop a blue-gray, dull color. However, this patina is forcibly developed by some people by using different kinds of methods including controlled exposure and use of acidic paste, among others. Managing carbon steel includes wiping it with wet cloth each time when switching ingredients and rinsing it very well in warm water once you’re done with your cutting. The knives can also be scoured with detergent and Scotch-Brite instead of the earlier process, which is perhaps a good idea when working with meat of any type. Here’s a list of the most commonly used carbon steels in Japanese knives trade:
- High carbon steel (AUS 8, AUS 10 and MBS 26): Contains more than 0.8% of carbon content and provides good edge retention quality. Sharpening is quite easy and may need to be re-sharpened every 2 to 3 months.
- High carbon steel (Yasuki Steel, Aogami No 1 and No 2 Blue VG10): Comes with more than 1% carbon content and has very good edge retention quality. Sharpening is absolutely easy and re-sharpening is required every 2 to 3 months.
Powdered steels are the newest and most advanced kind of steels in the realm of knife steel technology. Knife makers throughout the world always keep searching for the next superior level metal that can be put into use. Powder steel is perhaps the best answer to this search because of its edge retention and corrosion resistance ability. It’s an absolutely fine material that empowers knife makers to produce knives with beautiful, sharp edge. This isn’t the type of steel produced by old knifesmiths who simply sprinkle metal powders around. Instead, this is a specialist chemistry performed under extremely stringent conditions in the chemistry lab to manufacture the absolutely flawless amalgamation of steel possible in present technologies and times. This is a precision component and must be treated with intense care. Knives made with powdered steels may chip over time but that’s a small thing considering your investment to benefit from its unique performance. The following powder steels are being used in the kitchen knives’ industry:
- Stainless powder steel (SG2 / SGPS): Its good distribution of components and fine structure empowers it to add more alloy components compared to ordinary stainless steel. That enhances its cutting and hardness characteristics.
- Stainless powder steel (D2 / SKD11): More alloy elements can be added to this kind of steel compared to regular stainless steel. Though these are slightly firmer than SG2 / SGPS steel, they provide less rust resistance because of their lower chrome content.
- Stainless powder steel (MC66 / ZDP-189): Perhaps it’s the hardest stainless powder steel available in the market. It comes with the highest content of different alloy elements amongst all powder steel kinds.
Japanese knives have specialized applications. Let’s take a look at the common varieties:
Double bevel knives
- Gyuto: Somewhat similar to the Western chef’s knife, it has a thinner blade with a sharper edge, which makes it versatile and helps give precise cuts. You can mince, slice and chop vegetables, meat, fish and fruits with it.
- Santoku: You can call this multipurpose knife a cross between a Gyuto and Nakiri, which can be used to cut fish, meat, fish, fruits and vegetables.
- Sujihiki: This slicing knife has a sharper and thinner edge than its Western counterparts. Thanks to its long blade, you can use it for slicing patés and terrines, fine carving of cooked meats, or even for slicing raw fish (by replacing yanagi which is normally used).
- Nakiri: With a straight, thin blade and a large spine tapering to a blunt, square tip, it looks like a cleaver and is used for recurring chopping of vegetables.
- Bread knife: With its serrated edge, you can cut through bread cleanly.
- Paring: Also called a petty knife, this small sized multipurpose knife is used to cut, peel and de-seed fruits and vegetables. It’s an essential apparatus for bartenders who have to provide fresh fruit garnishes with their beverages.
Single bevel knives
- Yanagi-ba/Yanagi: With a long, sharp and thin blade, this knife is designed to slice raw fish as well as seafood cleanly using a slight force. Since this knife gives clean cuts with no rough surfaces or bruises, it’s a vital apparatus for Japanese sushi chefs. Apart from raw fish, you can use this knife to slice vegetables in thin pieces, carve roast beef, or to cut portions of patés and terrines.
- Takohiki/Takobiki: With similarities to the yanagi, this too is a fish slicing knife but it comes with a squared head that helps in scooping up sashimi slices neatly. With its long, sharp blade, you can make clean slices of raw seafood and fish with a solitary pull and forget about cuts that cause rough or bruised surfaces.
- Deba: With a thick durable blade that has weight and sharpness ideal for filleting and gutting fish. You can even cut through fish ribs, fish heads and poultry with this knife. Deba is available in various styles. Funayuki and Mioroshi Deba can act both as a yanagi and deba. With Yo-Deba (where the words mean “Western deba” in the literal sense) that comes with a double-bevel edge for heavy duty cutting, you can cut through crab shells and lobster.
- Usuba: With an exceptionally thin and sharp edge, it is ideal for cutting paper thin slices of vegetables. It’s also used for dicing as well as making brunoise and julienne cuts.
- Kiritsuke: This multipurpose knife is a cross between a usuba and yanagi that’s ideal for cutting fish, fruits, meat and vegetables.
- Honesuki: Traditionally, this single bevel knife is used for cutting poultry, but you can also use it to break down other types of meats.
The Miyabi knives are designed to give exceptional cutting performance. Since the blade of each Miyabi knife is hand-honed in accordance with traditional Japanese sharpening techniques, their sharpness is similar to a scalpel. Equipped with ergonomically designed handles, these knives can glide through food smoothly. Three types of steel are used to forge Miyabi blades:
- Microcarbide powder steel with hardness of 63 on the Rockwell scale (which used for knives of the Artisan series meant for experienced Japanese knife users)
- Cobalt molybdenum vanadium steel with hardness of 60 on the Rockwell scale (which used for knives of the Miyabi Kaizen, Miyabi Fusion and Miyabi Pro series meant for users who have used Japanese knives before and have experience in handling them)
- Special formula steel (German composition having chromium and carbon for corrosion resistance and hardness respectively) and with hardness of 57 on the Rockwell scale (which used for knives of the Miyabi Red series meant for users with no, little or some experience of handling Japanese knifves)
Blending expert craftsmanship with impressive looks, the Miyabi knives are ideal for getting thin slices, fine edges and precision cuts. From a novice home cook and a slightly experienced chef to a pro chef, the different series of Miyabi knives have something or the other to suit every need and experience level.
Wusthof Grand prix II
Grand Prix II knives of Wusthof use Precision Edge Technology for sharper blades with better edge retention than other similar knives available in the market. The blades are laser-measured and computerized calculations are used for determining the exact angle required for sharpening the blades. A precision robot sharpens the blade accordingly on a whetstone, after which a special disc is sued to polish the blade. The Santoku knife with a hollow edge of the Grand Prix II series combines conventional Japanese style with German craftsmanship to ensure you get exceptional performance for precision tasks such as making paper thin slices and mincing. Since the blade crafted using high-carbon steel (and thus corrosion- and stain-resistant) comes with shallow depressions shaped like oval, you won’t have to worry about foods sticking to your blade or encountering friction while making cuts. With its tang running deep into the pebbled polypropylene handle, this Santoku knife offers a secure grip with outstanding control and durability.
Messermeister San Moritz Elite
The 7-inch Santoku knife is completely molded from a lone piece of premium German steel alloy. It comes with a thin taper that gives optimum accuracy when slicing fish, vegetables and meat together with cutting and separating slices of cheese. With its bolsterless heel, this knife lets you use the full blade – from tip to heel, which in turn simplifies your cutting, honing and sharpening duties. With its handle and blade being compatible in weight and width, this knife is a well-balanced, versatile tool similar to a traditional chef’s knife. The blade of this knife reads 57 to 58 on the Rockwell scale. The Elité edge, which is hand polished on a cloth wheel, gives the Santoku exemplary sharpness. With features like resistance to stain and corrosion, durability, toughness, edge retention, and the ability to get re-sharpened to bring back a razor-sharp edge, this Messermeister San Moritz Elite can become a statement tool in your kitchen. To make sure you continue using this knife for long, you should avoid using cleaners with citrus extracts or bleach for cleaning it. Don’t put it in the dishwasher either. Simply use a mild detergent and warm water to hand-wash it and then dry immediately.
Japanese knives are perhaps the most diverse in terms of their aesthetics, materials and designs compared to any other knives in the world. From the multipurpose designs such as santokus and gyutos that can be adapted to handle various tasks, to highly specialized designs that you find in the debas or yanagi-bas, everyone will have something or the other to use – no matter what experience or skills they have in handling Japanese kitchen knives. When it comes to production techniques, they vary from many Western knives that are mass produced. These rustic Japanese knives are handcrafted to blend functionality with excellent aesthetics. Usually, Japanese knives are made of extremely high quality steels that are often heat treated to achieve hardness levels higher than that of their western varieties. As a result, you will find Japanese knives having precision edges at acute bevel angles, unlike their western peers, which helps them offer superior performance. Yet, these knives are often more delicate, which makes it important to take proper care of them. So, if you are a cutlery enthusiast, assess your skills and experience as well as your requirements to shop for the most appropriate Japanese kitchen knives this season. Whether you are a home-based chef or a professional user, the wide variety of Japanese knives are sure to make your kitchen work more efficient and seamless.