Japanese Knives: A Cut Above

If you have ever watched a Samurai epic, you know that Japanese warriors pay a great deal of attention to their swords. That same attention has gone into the making of Japanese kitchen knives. Sales of Japanese-made knives have “skyrocketed” in the past 10 to 15 years, according to Jeremy Watson, sales manager for Korin Japanese Trading Co. in New York, which sells them. “We deal mostly with professional chefs, but in the last five to six years, we’ve seen many more retail customers as well.”

Japanese-style knives have become so popular that American and European knife manufacturers are making them. German-based Wusthof, a premier producer of kitchen knives, has two complete lines of Japanese-style knives as well as santoku Japanese knives (the popular all-purpose knife) in two other collections.

Togiharu Santoku Japanese Knife

Unfortunately, as with so many things in life, popularity leads to poor imitations. There are dozens of Japanese-style knives, most commonly the santoku, that are as worthless as $50 espresso makers. You often get what you pay for—expect to shell out at least $150 and frequently more for a good chef’s knife—but there are factors other than price to consider.

Japanese knives are divided into two categories, traditional and Western-style. Traditional Japanese knives are used almost exclusively by Japanese chefs. Western-style Japanese knives fuse some of the elements of traditional Japanese knives with aspects of Western or European knives (also known as German knives because so many are made there).

One example is the bevel or the angle at which the two sides of the blade come together on the knife’s edge. On a traditional Western knife, it is 50/50, meaning the same angle on both sides of the edge.

Misono Japanese Knife

On a traditional Japanese knife, it is 90/10. On a Western-style Japanese knife, it’s 70/30. “This gives a more precise, cleaner cut,” Watson says. If you’ve ever seen Japanese chefs work their magic at sushi bars, you know what he means. The appearance of Western-style Japanese knives also mimics that of Western knives, from the handle to the shape of the blade

However, there are other notable differences. The steel in Japanese knives is harder than that of Western knives, which enables the Japanese knives to hold an edge longer. It also means that Western-style Japanese knives have thinner blades, which generally makes these knives lighter than Western knives. These two qualities, more than any other, have created converts among many cooks.

“I’ve moved from German to (Western style) Japanese knives,” says Sarah Jay, author of Knives Cooks Love (Sur La Table). “I have small hands and the Japanese knives are less fatiguing.”

Masanobu Japanese Knife

Hold on, says Norman Weinstein, author ofMastering Knife Skills (Stewart, Tabori & Chang). Weinstein, who teaches knife skills classes at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York, is a long-time advocate of the Western-style and especially German-made knives. “There is a mystique about Japanese knives,” Weinstein says. “They are made of excellent steel and they are thinner. But the idea that Japanese knives cause less stress makes no sense to me.”

To illustrate in the 130 classes he teaches each year, Weinstein asks each of his students, including a number of small-handed women, to cut a rib of celery using an 8-inch Western-style chef’s knife. Then he asks them to use a heavier, 10-inch chef’s knife. The students (as well as me, when I attended one of his classes) are almost universally stunned that the heavier knife cuts more easily.

Togiharu Japanese Knife

So, East or West? I tried out three different brands of the Western-style Japanese chef’s knife, called a gyutou in Japanese, from Korin. All three, the Togiharu ($156.50), Masanobu VG-10 ($345), and Misono UX10 ($210), had 9.4-inch blades. All had good balance but the Misono’s larger wooden handle felt more comfortable in my hand than the smaller resin-based Togiharu handle, even though my hands aren’t particularly large. The Mansanobu had a more traditional Japanese cylindrical handle, which necessitated choking up closer to the blade to feel more in control.

All three cut like a dream, better than any European chef’s knife I’ve ever used. The Togiharu and Misono cut onion slices so thin, it reminded me of Paul Sorvino slicing garlic with a razor blade inGoodfellas. Despite the reputation of Japanese knives for being light, all three weighed in between 8 and 9 ounces, about the same as my Wusthof 10-inch German-made knife. The combination of heft and sharpness made cutting harder vegetables, like fennel, a breeze.

I also tried a Togiharu santoku, which, at 6.4 inches was in between the Chinese-made Analon santoku (7.75 inches) and the German-made Kuhn Rikon (5.75 inches) I own. While neither Analon and Kuhn Rikon are considered top-of-the-line knife makers, they illustrate how widespread the popularity of the santoku style knife is. Not surprisingly, the Togiharu ($110) ran rings both, even though the Kuhn Rikon had a nonstick coating. Still, if faced with a choice between the santoku and gyutou styles, I’d choose the latter, which gives you the sharpness of Japanese steel with the heft of a European chef’s knife.

That said, there are some caveats. Unlike European knives, even those made in the santoku shape, Western-style Japanese knives have no bolster, the thick band of smooth, unsharpened steel that runs along the heel of the blade. Without a bolster, your forefinger can bang against the unprotected heel, which can cause soreness or blisters. This, of course, depends on how you grip the knife. I’ve always pressed my middle finger  against the bolster when using a chef’s knife. But with the Togiharu, I pulled my finger back a bit and squeezed a little harder with my thumb and forefinger on either side of the blade. (Watson says he has not heard complaints from customers.)

A more important issue is how to maintain the sharpness of the knife, something that far too many amateur cooks don’t pay enough attention to. “People think that because they paid $125 for a knife, they don’t have to do anything,” Weinstein says. “It’s like buying a car and not thinking you need to put gas in.”

Western knives can be sharpened in three ways: by using a stone, though few people will take the time to learn how to do it properly; a manual or electric knife sharpener; or by sending them to a knife sharpening service. Western-style Japanese knives can also be sharpened with a stone, but not with a manual or electric sharpener because of the bevel. The bevel also makes honing the blade (which sets the edge but doesn’t sharpen) difficult on a honing steel. However, there are fine and super fine stones that hone Japanese knives as well as remove surface scratches. A knife sharpening service should specifically deal with Japanese knives. (Korin has such a service, available by mail.)

Finally, maintaining your kitchen knives involves more than sharpening and honing. Wash them by hand, not in the dishwasher, where they can get banged up, and without abrasives, which can scratch the metal. Wipe them and put them away after they are rinsed to eliminate spots (which don’t affect cutting) and keep the knife tips from getting damaged in drying racks.

Store knives in a knife rack or on a magnet bar. Knives stored in drawers can get nicked. So can you, if you stick your hand it. By the way, a few months ago, I found a knife rack that doesn’t require you to buy a set of knives or fit your knives into pre-set slots. The Kapoosh Universal Cutlery Block (which comes in stainless steel or hardwood) features moveable fibers inside that are fully adjustable and hold any type of knife in any position – no slots required.

Take care of your knives and they’ll take care of you, just the way they did for Samurai warriors.

 How to Get It

  • Chefknivestogo, Madison, WI, 608-232-1137, www.chefknivestogo.com
  • Country Knives, Intercourse, PA, 717-768-3818, www.countryknives.com (offers sharpening service)
  • Japan Woodworker, Alameda, CA, 800-537-7820, www.japanwoodworker.com
  • Korin Japanese Trading Co., New York, NY,  800-626-2172, www.Korin.com (offers sharpening service)
  • Sur La Table, Seattle, Wash., 800.243.0852 www.surlatable.com

 

These photos are courtesy of Korin.
This article first appeared in the December 15, 2008 issue of Wine Spectator.

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