Asian (Japanese) kitchen knives – The cut above
When we mention Asian knives we’re really talking about Japanese knives. Japan has been making quality knives for centuries and with their razor-sharp edges and unrivalled elegance, it’s easy to see why Japanese kitchen knives are some of the best in the world.
With their harder steel and superior slicing abilities, Japanese kitchen knives have become an essential tool in the hands of many an avid home cook or chef. But what makes these knives so special? Are they really better than their European counterparts? Are they really a cut above the rest?
In reality, comparing the best European and Japanese knives is a bit like comparing apples to oranges. Yes they are both knives and are used to chop slice and dice, but that’s where the similarities end. They are designed, manufactured and look different.
Let’s take a closer look at the process…
Japanese kitchen knives – Honyaki or Kasumi?
There are two ways Japanese craftsmen make knives – Either using the Honyaki or Kasumi method.
Honyaki knives are made using one complete piece of solid high-carbon steel, similar to sword making. The process is long and hard and requires the precision technique of a highly skilled blade-master.
The blade of a Honyaki knife is normally very hard so it has the ability to retain sharpness for a long time. This however can also make it prone to chipping and in some cases, difficult to sharpen.
Since the long process also makes them difficult to mass-produce, Honyaki knives can be quite expensive.
That said, many top chefs love to use Honyaki knives because they are more likely to be able to handle such a temperamental but beautifully-crafted thing.
Japanese Kasumi knives are formed by forging together a layer of hard steel between layers of soft iron. The high carbon steel forms the blade’s edge, while the softer iron forms the body spine of the knife blade.
Generally speaking, kasumi knives are easier to make, use and sharpen; and for these reasons, are less expensive than their single metal cousins.
Just to confuse you – Honyaki and Kasumi derivatives
Just when you think that you’ve mastered all there is to know about Japanese knife making, Japanese kitchen knives can also be made using the Hogasumi and Damascus-steel methods. In actual fact, these are simply derivatives of the Honyaki and kasumi methods.
For example, Hogasumi knives are made using the same single-blade technique, however the quality of steel used is usually of an even higher quality and will stay sharper for longer.
But as with Honyaki knives, in terms of cost, Hogasumi knives can be expensive.
Damascus steel knives
Damascus steel knives are noted by their beautiful wavy patterns on the blade and as such are extremely appealing. They are made in a very similar way to Kasumi kitchen knives in that high-carbon steel is integrated with layers of soft iron which are added before forging. Their beautiful appearance and ease of sharpening does make them a popular choice for many people.
Despite the variations in softness and hardness of Japanese kitchen knives, Japanese blades generally have a Rockwell scale rating (a scale used to define the hardness of a piece of steel) of somewhere between 58 and 65. Alternatively, Western (European) knives usually have a Rockwell rating of between 52 and 56. So typically, Japanese blades are considered harder.
The Blade Angle
Another point of difference between Japanese kitchen knives and their European equivalents is the blade angle. Japanese knife blades tend to have a single-sharpened edge, honed to an angle of around 15 degrees. European, German knives on the other hand, have a double-bevel edge which is sharpened to around 20 degrees.
Japanese kitchen knives have one-sided thinner blades designed specifically to slice through food cleanly. This is highly important when it comes to sushi as it allows for cleaner cuts, meaning no damage is done to the surface or texture of the fish. Some sushi experts suggest that this can make a big difference to the taste.
Japanese kitchen knives – What to choose
Hopefully you now understand the subtle and not-so subtle differences between Japanese and European kitchen knives. But if you are considering investing in a Japanese knife or two, it’s important to know what knife to choose. After all, there are Japanese chef’s knives for every occasion. So without further ado, lets’ dive in and take a look…
The Santoku knife is the most popular knife in Japanese households, more so than the Gyuto knife. Typically it’s around 6-7 inches in length and is a true multi-purpose knife. Santoku translates into ‘three virtues‘ or ‘three-purposes‘ and is well-suited to cutting meat, fish and vegetables.
Traditionally known as the Hon-Deba (True Deba) its normally used to fillet and clean whole fish. It is more weighty than other knives and is ideal for cutting and chopping through smaller bones found in both fish and poultry. It comes in a variety of blade sizes ranging from 6 inches to 12 inches and the tapered blade and stout handle maintains a perfect point of balance. This makes it far more agile than you might expect. As such, the Deba is surprisingly good at carrying out delicate work.
A Yanagiba knife is the Eastern equivalent of the western filleting knife. With it’s thin blade and acute-edge angle it’s perfect for intricate filleting and sushi, sashimi work. Again they come in all sizes from 6 -12 inches (21-33 cm)
This is Japan’s equivalent to a European slicer knife except the blade is thinner and made of harder steel. The steeper angled bevel allows for a more precise cut. It’s a perfect knife for filleting and carving.
Petty knives are similar to pairing knives and are used to carry out intricate work where the foods are delicate. These include small vegetables, fruits and herbs
Honesuki and Hankotsu knives are used primarily for boning. Unlike western boning knives they have a more rigid form with a thicker spine. Great for de-boning meat for preservation, both the Honesuki and Hankotsu knives are recognisable by their distinctive triangular-tip shape.
The Nakiri knife resembles more of the cleaver shape that we often see in Chinese and Japanese kitchens. It has a straight blade meaning that it’s ideal for julienning and finely slicing vegetables. The Nakiri is perfect for cutting into hard skinned vegetables like squash and pumpkin.
The Usuba is also a vegetable knife but unlike the Nakiri, it’s used for precise vegetable work. Recognised by its curved tip and single-edge, this knife remains popular in many Japanese households.
If you need a knife to slice bread and baked goods then you need a Pankiri. This particular knife has rigid teeth designed to slice through dense bread and hard crusts, but is just as happy slicing through delicate items like sandwiches and sponges without crushing them.
As you can see the Japanese have a kitchen knife for virtually every occasion. Of course, there are way more that we could mention here but these are by far the most common types.
If however I had to choose one knife to start, I would choose the all-rounder Santoku knife. It does everything it says on the tin and probably more besides.
While Japanese kitchen knives require a little more love and a great deal of attention, when it comes to sharper, more accurate cutting, slicing and dicing, Japanese kitchen knives are well worth the investment and they certainly do make the cut.
If you’d like to find out more information on Japanese kitchen knife brands, check out our blog.
In the meantime, stay Blade Sharp!