Japanese Kitchen Knives

I have developed a weakness for sharp things intended to be used by hand – kitchen knives, handplanes, woodworking chisels, etc… Japan is known for producing some of the best regarded examples of all of these, and a key factor is the combination of the steel used and the way the blade is produced. Unlike most American and European blades which are formed from one piece of steel selected as a compromise between hardness and brittleness (and other factors), high quality Japanese blades are usually made out of two different steels laminated together with the actual cutting edge being a very hard but brittle steel and the body being a softer and more ductile steel that reinforces and protects the edge piece.

This difference in material has, among other factors, driven differences in tool design and tool usage relative to “western” tools, for example Japanese handplanes and saws are designed to be pulled rathar than pushed. Kitchen knives are generally specified for right or left hand use and are beveled on only one side and ground flat on the other. A “western” fish fillet knife is typically thin and flexible whereas the Japanese version is thick and rigid.

What this all boils down to is that even though I don’t technically need more tools for the workshop or kitchen to essentially do the same function of some I already have, the ones here are different enough that I have decided there is a place for them in my collection. Focusing on the kitchen knives, these are the ones I have found so far:

1. Soba knife – I was walking past a restaurant featuring hand made soba noodles and saw the chef using a massive version of one of these to cut the noodles. I was mesmerized by the knife and I decided I had to have one. Little did I know what I was getting into, as the search led me all over the city. Professional versions of these knives are impressive chunks of metal with equally hefty price tags, and it took quite a bit of hunting to find a version of size and price that fit my needs (and my homeward bound luggage allowance). Right now a bit of a novelty since my kitchen is too small to roll out any dough for making noodles, but I am sure that once I get back to a full size kitchen I will find lots of use for it. I did make one concession and bought one in stainless steel rathar than the more typical (and better) carbon steel, but given that I don’t expect to use it that often I opted for the convenience of stainless.

2. “Nakiri” Vegetable knife – I had looked at this kind of knife several times before in the US and couldn’t see how it would add much to my selection of kitchen knives. Since I didn’t have much of a selection in the flat here I decided to get a cheap one from a department store to try out the style before jumping in for a high quality one, and after a few weeks I have decided that I already have enough knives at home that can do the same functions and can save my money… but I’ll take this one back with me anyway if just for the name on it – how can you pass up a knife branded “Be Sharp”?

3. “Deba” Fish knife – a memorable purchase from the Masahisa knife company in Tsukiji market. A thick, hefty knife with a razor edge and incredible balance for prepping fish… Off with the head, out with the innards, steak or fillet with one knife. They make the knives on-site, and after selecting the knife I wanted they advised me to come back in a few minutes so they could give it a final sharpening for me.

4. Kanto style slicer – Another purchase from Masahisa, this one is a somewhat unusual sashimi slicer in the rectangular pattern historically associated with the Kanto region (of which Tokyo is a part) rathar than the more typical curved pattern. I don’t tend to slice much sashimi at home, but I anticipate it will be equally happy gliding through a turkey breast or pork loin.

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