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There are a number of different types of Japanese kitchen knives. The most commonly used types in the Japanese kitchen are the deba bocho (kitchen cleaver), the santoku hocho (all-purpose utility knife), the nakiri bocho and usuba hocho (Japanese vegetable knives), and the tako hiki and yanagi ba (sashimi slicers). Most knives are referred to as hōchō (包丁), or sometimes -bōchō (due to rendaku), but sometimes have other names, like -kiri (〜切り, "… cutter").
Types of kitchen knives
Honyaki are true-forged knives, made from one material. This is generally a top-grade knife-specific steel (blue and white steel are most common).
Kasumi are made from two materials, like katana: high-carbon steel "hagane" (blue or white steel in good kasumi knives) and soft iron "jigane" forged together. This style of knife offers a similar cutting edge to a honyaki blade in high-grade knives. It offers the benefit of being "more forgiving" and generally easier to maintain than the honyaki style, at the expense of stiffness. Some see this as an advantage.
San Mai generally refers to knives with the hard steel hagane forming the blade's edge and the iron/stainless forming a jacket on both sides. In stainless versions, this offers a practical and visible advantage of a superb cutting edge of modern Japanese knife steel with a corrosion resistant exterior. In professional Japanese kitchens, the edge is kept free of corrosion because knives are generally sharpened on a daily basis.
Honyaki and kasumi knives can be forged out of steel. Based on their kirenaga (duration of sharpness) and hardness, however they are more difficult to use and maintain. Additionally, there are high-grade quality kasumi knives called hongasumi and layered-steel kasumi called Damascus that have longer kirenaga.
Originally, all Japanese kitchen knives were made from the same carbon steel as katana. More expensive san mai knives have a similar quality, containing an inner core of hard and brittle carbon steel, with a thick layer of soft and more ductile steel sandwiched around the core so that the hard steel is exposed only at the cutting edge. Nowadays stainless steel is often used for Japanese kitchen knives, and san mai laminated blade construction is used in more expensive blades to add corrosion resistance while maintaining strength and durability.
Much high-quality Japanese cutlery originates from Sakai, the capital of samurai sword manufacturing since the 14th century. After the Meiji Restoration, the carrying of swords by the samurai class was banned as part of an attempt to modernise Japan. Though demand for military swords remained and some swordsmiths still produced traditional samurai swords as art, the majority of swordsmiths refocused their skill to cutlery production.
The production of steel knives in Sakai started in the 16th century, when tobacco was introduced to Japan by the Portuguese, and Sakai craftsmen started to make knives for cutting tobacco. The Sakai knives industry received a major boost from the Tokugawa shogunate (1603–1868), which granted Sakai a special seal of approval and enhanced its reputation for quality (and according to some references a monopoly).
During the Edo period (1603–1867) (or more precisely the Genroku era (1688–1704)) the first deba bocho were manufactured, soon followed by a wide range of other styles. Making kitchen knives and related products is still a major industry in Sakai, using a combination of modern machinery and traditional hand tools to make stain-resistant carbon steel blades.
Seki, Gifu is today considered the home of modern Japanese kitchen cutlery, where state-of-the-art manufacturing and technology has updated ancient forging skills to produce a world-class series of stainless and laminated steel kitchen knives famed throughout the world. The major cutlery making companies are based in Seki, and they produce the highest quality kitchen knives in the traditional Japanese style and the western style, like the gyuto and the santoku. Knives and swords are so much a part of the city that it is home of the Seki Cutlery Association, the Seki Swordsmith Museum, the Seki Outdoor Knife Show, the October Cutlery Festival, and the Cutlery Hall where tourists can purchase knives.
Another famous center for traditional blacksmiths and knifesmiths is Miki City. Miki is well known to all of Japan for its knifemaking traditions, and its knives and tools recall the pride of Japanese steelmaking. Most Miki manufacturers are small family businesses where craftsmanship is more important than volume and typically produce fewer than a dozen knives a day.
Design and philosophy
Unlike western knives, Japanese knives are often single ground, i.e., sharpened so that only one side holds the cutting edge. As shown in the image, some Japanese knives are angled from both sides, and others are angled only from one side, with the other side of the blade being flat. It was originally believed that a blade angled only on one side cuts better and makes cleaner cuts, though requiring more skill in its use than a blade with a double-beveled edge. Usually, the right hand side of the blade is angled, as most people use the knife with their right hand, with ratios ranging from 70–30 for the average chef's knife, to 90–10 for professional sushi chef knives; left-handed models are rare and must be specially ordered and custom made.
Since the end of World War II, western-style double-beveled edged knives have become much more popular in Japan, the best example being that of the santoku, an adaptation of the gyuto (牛刀 （ぎゅうとう） gyūtō, gyuto, gyutou ), the French chef's knife. While these knives are usually honed and sharpened on both sides, their blades are still given Japanese-style acute-angle cutting edges with a very hard temper to increase cutting ability.
Professional Japanese cooks usually own their personal set of knives, which are not used by other cooks. Some cooks even own two sets of knives, which they alternate every other day. After sharpening a carbon-steel knife in the evening after use, the user normally lets the knife "rest" for a day to restore its patina and remove any metallic odour or taste that might otherwise be passed on to the food.
Japanese knives feature subtle variations on the chisel grind: firstly, the back side of the blade is often concave, to reduce drag and adhesion so the food separates more cleanly; this feature is known as urasuki. Secondly, the kanisaki deba, used for cutting crab and other shellfish, has the grind on the opposite side (left side angled for right-handed use), so that the meat is not cut when chopping the shell.
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- List of Japanese cooking utensils
- Kitchen knife
- Honyaki: True-forged Japanese knives
- Deba bōchō: Kitchen cleaver for fish
- Maguro bōchō: Very long knives to fillet tuna
- Nakiri bocho: Standard vegetable knife
- Santoku: Meaning "three virtues", used for fish, meat and vegetables; western-style knife
- Sashimi bocho: Sashimi slicer
- Soba kiri: Knife to make soba
- Udon kiri: Knife to make udon
- Unagisaki hocho: Japanese eel knife
- Usuba bocho: Professional vegetable knife
- Yanagi ba: Sashimi slicer
- Japanese Chef Knife History of Seki City, Japan
- Hurt, Harry, III (2006) "How to Succeed at Knife-Sharpening Without Losing a Thumb" The New York Times, September 23, 2006. Accessed September 23, 2006.
- Knife Edge Grind Types
- Japanese Kitchen Knife Types And Styles
- Tsuji, Shizuo, and Mary Sutherland. Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art, first edition. Tokyo: Kodansha International Ltd., 1980. ISBN 0-87011-399-2.
- Nozaki, Hiromitsu, & Klippensteen, Kate (2009) Japanese Kitchen Knives: essential techniques and recipes. Tokyo: Kodansha International ISBN 978-4-7700-3076-4
- Tsuji, Shizuo, & Sutherland, Mary (2006) Japanese Cooking: a simple art; revised edition. Tokyo: Kodansha International ISBN 978-4-7700-3049-8