Japanese knives with laminated blades deliver the best value.
Edges on traditional Japanese knives are usually ground on one side only. Left handed knives may need to be special ordered.
Many double edged Japanese knives feature handles designed to be held in the right hand. Knives with left handed handles are usually available.
Most Japanese knives are designed around specific purposes. Santoku knives are ideal multi-functional tools.
Medium weight Chinese cleavers are the most versatile.
The steel used to produce Japanese knives is much harder than that used by knife makers in Germany. Although Japanese knives can be sharpened more finely and hold their edges longer than knives manufactured in the west, they are also more brittle than western knives and may chip or crack if misused or dropped. Japanese knives are widely considered superior to all others and a number of western manufacturers are beginning to use Japanese steels and forging techniques in the production of their own knives. Japanese knives fit into two categories depending on how they are produced.
Honyaki (“true-forged”) blades are crafted from a single piece of steel folded back on itself many times. They are very hard, very sharp, and very expensive. It can take a team of four skilled craftsmen months to forge a single blade.
Kasumi knives are made of layers of different metals. They are usually composed of a piece of high carbon steel clad in softer stainless steel or iron. The steel core provides a hard, sharp edge, and the softer sheath makes the blade less brittle and easier to sharpen. Layered (or Damascus) steel, prized for its beauty, is created by fusing a piece of carbon steel with a piece of soft iron and folding it many times. Of all Kasumi knives, those made from Damascus steel are the sharpest.
Traditional Japanese Knives
Although traditional Japanese knives are produced in a vast number of regional styles, they can generally be classified into three groups, each defined by a specific purpose.
The Yanagi (meaning “willow leaf”) is the principle style of sashimi knife. It is long and thin with a pointed tip and is used for slicing raw fish at a straight angle or on a bias. Its cousin, the Takobiki, has a square tip and is usually employed for straight-cut sashimi only.
With its long rectangular blade, the Usuba resembles a very squat cleaver. It is solely a vegetable knife and although it is used for cutting and dicing, it is specifically designed for hand turning vegetables into thin sheets. The Kamagata Usuba is similar except its spine curves down to a sharp tip making it particularly useful for delicate work.
The Deba is designed for delicately filleting fish as well as butchering boneless meat. Deba knives are surprisingly heavy and have an almost triangular shaped blade, similar to that of western chef’s knives.
Most traditional Japanese knives are hollow ground on one side only, meaning the reverse side is just slightly concave. It is maintained that single edged blades can not only be sharpened more finely than double edged blades, but produce more even cuts as well. Single edged blades, however, can only be used in one direction. Most are designed for right-handed use, but some left-handed blades are either available or can be ordered.
Western Style Japanese Knives
Most Japanese knife makers also produce lines of western-style blades. They are usually double edged and equipped with western-style handles. Unlike traditional European knives they are ground with a finer edge and equipped with small bolsters that serve as little more than extensions of the handles. They are designed and balanced to be held with a pinch-grip (meaning the flat of the blade is pinched between the thumb and the fore-finger) and as a result are very nimble at the tip and sturdy in the heel.
Even though Santoku knives are considered western knives, they can be found in almost every Japanese kitchen. Literally translating as “3 Virtues,” the Santoku is a light-weight all-purpose knife ideal for cutting meat, fish, and vegetables. Many Santoku knives now come with Granton beveling, rows of dimples that create pockets of air to reduce friction and sticking. It is believed that this dimpling allows for thinner, easier slicing, but its effectiveness is questionable.
Universal in Chinese kitchens, the Chinese Cleaver is the ultimate all-purpose cutting tool. Its long, barely curved edge is as adept at dicing and mincing vegetables as it is at butchering poultry. The top edge is ideal for pounding and tenderizing meat and the flat of the blade is ideal for smashing cloves of garlic and peppercorns as well as scraping up ingredients off the chopping board. The blades Chinese Cleavers are usually forged to a standard length of about 200mm, but come in a variety of thicknesses and weights. Lighter cleavers are best suited for cutting and mincing and heavier cleavers are designed for chopping through bone. We recommend cleavers of a medium weight because they can meet the demands of both.
With the advent of modern materials technologies, Kyocera and others have begun marketing lines of ceramic knives to the public. Harder and lighter than steel, ceramic knives will hold an edge up to 10 times longer than forged knives. The disadvantage to ceramic knives is that they are more brittle, will chip or crack if misused or dropped, and must be sent back to the manufacturer to be sharpened. Kyocera will, however, generally repair or replace damaged knives.