Techniques & Tools Knife TechniqueJapanese KnivesKatsuramuki
Japanese Knives
 

Japan’s long tradition of sword-making, where high-carbon steel is forged, folded, and forged again, has influenced the production of Japanese knives. The best kind, called hon-yaki (true forged), are hundreds of dollars and are used by professional chefs because of their ability to be sharpened to such a degree that it is said they can split a single strand of hair. Most home cooks are perfectly happy with kasumi-yaki knives, which have a thin layer of hon-yaki in the middle, where the knife edge is, surrounded by a thick layer of soft steel.

Japanese knives are designed differently from Western knives. Movement is made with the whole arm, rather than bending at the wrist. Therefore, Japanese knives are centrally balanced, rather than being top heavy. Also, Japanese knives are sharpened only on one side, so they are made specifically for right- or left-handed people. While this makes the cutting edge more precise, it also makes owning a full set of knives an expensive proposition, especially in a household with right- and left-handed members.

Luckily, renowned knife-makers such as Aritsugu, who have perfected the art of knife-making by following age-old methods and techniques to this day, recognize the changing times. They have developed a set of Western knives in order to accommodate the growing prevalence of yoshoku (western cuisine). Additionally, they have invented modern knives that are sharpened on both sides, which can be used with either hand and are versatile enough to cut fish, sashimi and vegetables. I am listing the most commonly used knives below, but there are many other specialty knives.

Nakiro-bocho (vegetable knife)
This knife is shaped like a cleaver, but is much lighter in weight and is capable of very delicate work. This is the knife that I reach for most often, so if you were to buy only one kind of Japanese knife, this is the variety I would recommend. It is extremely light and easy to use, and keeps its edge for a long time. The wide shape makes it easy to guide in a straight line, and makes quick work of cutting vegetables into sengiri (julienne).

Deba-bocho (fish knife)
I have a small right-handed deba-bocho that I use for meat, chicken and fish. This is sharpened on one side, and is pointed and much thicker than the vegetable knife. It can cut easily through fish-bone, and the small size is easy to handle. We bought the right-handed knife even though I’m left-handed because it was considerably cheaper, and I thought “what difference would it make?” Well, I find it almost impossible to use with my left hand, so when I use this knife, I must use my right hand.

Tako-biki hocho or Yanagi-ba hocho (sashimi knives)
If you love sashimi and eat it often, you might want to buy a true sashimi knife. The only reason we have yet to buy one is the expense. For some reason, these knives are much more expensive than other types of knives; they can easily cost $1,000 or more. I make do with a very sharp regular Western knife, but since the key to slicing sashimi is to cut it in one length, the result is less than perfect. There are two shapes: the tako-hiki (tako means octopus) has a flat top and is popular in Tokyo, and the yanagi-ba (willow leaf) shape is prevalent in Kansai.

Care of Japanese Knives
Never sharpen Japanese knives with metal knife sharpeners. Ideally, you should use a Japanese whetstone. If you invest in hon-yaki knives, it's almost a given that you will also own a whetstone. Professional chefs go as far as to sharpen their knives every night, so they are always ready. I'm lucky, because my husband is a woodworker and is used to sharpening tools and knives. The trick is to do it regularly— at least once a month. The longer you wait, the more pocked and uneven the blade becomes, and the longer it takes to get the edge back. Regular sharpening keeps the cutting edge at the correct angle. You may ask what Japanese people do. They often have the knives sharpened at the knife store, and there are also traveling knife sharpeners who make house calls. Stores such as Aritsugu sharpen knives for free, for a lifetime of use.

 
 
 
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