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The Different Types of Traditional Japanese Knives : What You Should Know

April 25, 2023228 ViewskniveSource

Traditional Japanese knives have been hand-made by skilled artisans for centuries in areas of Japan like Sakai and Seki City. Their culture produces and uses knives that can be quite different than ours here in the Western part of the world. However, Americans are growing more fond of certain types of Japanese knives and finding that they are quite useful for certain tasks in the kitchen.

In this digital age we live in, it’s much more likely that the average home chef will run into pictures or stories of a traditional Japanese knife. Beyond that, with the invent of online shopping and the global aspect of it, it’s exponentially easier to purchase them from the comfort of your own home.

There are many different types of traditional Japanese kitchen knives, but we’ll focus just on the more popular ones in our discussion below.

Japanese Knife Types

Deba

Deba meaning “pointed carver” in Japanese are single bevelled knives that have an acute angles on their edges and that excel at cutting softer, thinner produce like fish. They first appeared in the Edo period in Saki and it was designed to behead and fillet fish.

Its thickness and obtuse edge on the back of the heel allowed the user to cut of the heads of the fish without damage. It requires skill in order to be able to maintain its sharpness because its single sided. 

Its blade is thick and heavy duty for the tough tasks given to it. A Japanese Deba knife is most often called upon when cutting through the head and bones of a whole fish during the filleting process, but it can be used on meat as well.

Gyuto

The Gyuto knife is Japan’s version of the Western chefs knife. A prefect all-purpose knife for numerous tasks around the kitchen. Unlike the Santoku knife, the Gyuto has a slightly curved blade so it can be used in more of a rocking motion.

Gyutou means “Beef Knife” in Japanese, this is because they were used in Japan for primarily cutting meat. It is the Japanese equivalent to a chef’s knife and like a chef’s knife it can be used to cut meat, vegetables, fish and because it has an extended tip it can smoothly be rocked back and forth for quick chopping or precious work. It is lighter than a European chef’s knife and also thinner and made out of a harder steel which allows us to hold its edge.

It can also be sharpened easily across the whole the blade because there is nothing obstructing the edge of the handle end of the blade. You will commonly find them in sizes between 210mm and 270mm although other variations can be found. It is a great first knife for an amateur chef or even a home cook, we find that people at home tend to go for a smaller knife and amateur chefs for a larger knife.

Kiritsuke

The Kiritsuke knife is quite unique looking with its angled tip. Some of the longer ones can almost look like a short sword! Kiritsuke knives do a great job of slicing cooked meat. They are well-known for being difficult to use and thus, in traditional Japanese culture, only executive chefs in a restaurant are allowed to used it.

Nakiri

The Japanese Nakiri knife is popular among home chefs for precise cuts like the julienne for vegetables. They also work well for harder product with thick skins like potatoes and squash. Nakiri knives are almost a Western twist on the Usuba knife. It has a double bevel, making it easier for home chefs and beginners than the more complex Usuba.

Nakiri meaning “Leaf Cutter” in Japanese makes it very easy to understand why this knife is used for cutting vegetables. People often mistake it for a cleaver because of its shape, although it should only be used for cutting vegetables, although it is similar to a cleaver in the way you use it to chop up and down rather than with a chefs knife where you roll it.

The blade is very thin, so it allows you to make those straight slice cuts, if used with small fish bones or meat you will find that it might shatter or crack. The Nakiri has a double bevelled edge as opposed to the Usuba knife which is a single bevelled edge. It can be used for chopping, slicing, mincing vegetables such as cucumbers, salad leaves, carrots and even fruits like banana, apples and oranges. It is a more specialised knife and so for that reason it would be great alternative to a Santoku knife/Multipurpose knife for someone that is a vegetarian 

Petty

A Petty knife is a small utility or paring knife that’s used by Japanese chefs for the delicate work on small fruits and vegetables. Very similar to a Western paring knife, a petty can be used for both styling fruits in a presentation manner or as a utility knife for preparing meals. This makes the petty very multipurpose and important to have around.

Petty meaning “Petit” in French means small. The petty knife is a general purpose knife that can be used for many different tasks in the kitchen. It is more nimble which allows you to reach the hard to reach places. It has a relevatiely narrow blade which allows you to make precion cuts.

The handle of the knife is commonly lighter which affects the balance of the knife by bringing it more in the centre, this also assists with creating precision cuts. It comes in a range of sizes from 75mm to 210mm although many people tend to go with a 90mm to 130mm, anything above that and you should consider getting a santoku knife. You will find this is in most kitchens and is the second knife we suggest to buy after the Santoku. 

Santoku

Santoku knives are used for all sorts of tasks around the kitchen. They are used to cut meat, fish, and vegetables. They have a rounded tip and flat blade so they can be used more in a chopping motion than a rocking motion like the Western chef’s knife. Like other Japanese knives, the santoku knives have strong, thin blades.

Santoku meaning “three virtues” in Japanese allowing it to be using for dicing, mincing and chopping. It may sound like it’s a copy of the the Gyuto/Chef’s Knife but actually it differs with both the shape and the way it can be used. The santoku knife has a taller blade and it also has a flat belly. The belly is the part of the blade where the blade’s edge is, this part of the knife is important as it affects the way the blade can be used, with a flat belly the Santoku knife cuts in a up and down chopping motion rather than the chef’s knife which is a more rocking type of cut. 

There is a go to knife for many home cooks as it normally comes in sizes between 130mm and 20mm which is relatively smaller in comparison to the chef’s knife. Also, many home cooks are used to a flat belly of the knife and normally cut the meat, vegetables or fish in a chopping motion rather than a rocking cut. 

Sujihiki

A Sujihiki knife is made with a long thin blade, typically with a double bevel. Similar to a Western slicing knife, but with a thinner, harder blade that requires less sharpening. The edge angle is also sharper, which is made possible because of the harder Japanese steel. This slicer makes quick work of meat, fish, and poultry.

Sujihiki meaning “Pull Tendon” refers to its ability to carve out meat and fillet fish. It is the Japanese equivalent to the European slicer. It is thinner than a European blade and is made out of harder steel allowing for a better edge.

Also, the way the way is it sharpened allows it to be used for precise work. It has a long narrow blade that smoothly slices through larger roasts or larger fish. It can also be used for thinly slicing other ingredients such as vegetables or soft fruit. 

Usuba

Usuba meaning “thin blade” in Japanese is a vegetable knife with a single edge. This means that it has a much sharper edge and is favoured for precise vegetable work where presentation is key. It used by professionals as it requires more experience to use and because of its incredibly sharp edge, it can even slice through tomatoes which normally requires a serrated edge to penetrate the skin before slicing it. Just like the Nakiri knife it can be used for chopping, slicing and mincing. 

The Usuba knife is used for intricate vegetable cutting, like julienne and dicing. They are single-bevel and thus take more skill to use than a Nakiri (Nakiri vs Usuba). But, once perfected, they can make thinly-sliced magical cuts. Most have a squared tip, but Usuba knives from the Kansai region are rounded at the tip.

Yanagiba

The Yanagiba knife is very long, very sharp, and very hard. It’s a high-end knife popular among sashimi chefs as it makes the best sushi knife. Their length allows them to slice through almost anything with a single, long slice rather than a back and forth motion. This, paired with a traditional single-bevel, give the user a very clean looking cut.

Yanagiba meaning “Willow Tree” in Japanese are single edged knives that are used to cut sashimi and sushi with precision, this is done through a long drawing motion rather than a chopping down or sawing method that you may see amateurs do with a chefs knife. 

They can also be used to fillet small to medium sized fish and are often used for skinning fish. The blade is so long it allows the user to cut from one of the end of the fish to the other making it a knife that requires skill to use. 

The reason this knife is used for Sashimi is because it helps to preserve the original flavour and texture of the fish, this is because of the acute blade angle which causes the fish to be sliced and then push away the other piece, this stops it from being damaged or squeezed which causes bruising and makes it harder to keep fresh. 

Yanagiba are available in variety of blade lengths, typically ranging from 210mm up to 360mm, with the 270mm, 300mm, and 330mm sizes being particularly popular.

Hankotsu

Hankotsu meaning “Rebellious” in Japanese is a boning knife that that differs from the Honesuki knife because its shape is more straight edged rather then triangular, it is used for cutting through hanging carcasses using a reverse cut grip which is the only time you should cut towards yourself.

It has a pointed tip and a short height which allows the user to turn to cut along bone, connective tissue or fat. Sometimes you find that they are unsharpened to give a very strong edge for tough work during the deboning process. It can be used for cutting poultry and fish but for that a Honesuki is a much better option. 

Japanese Knife Characteristics

There are a few features of Japanese knives that make them unique from Western knives. Reasons for the distinction range from traditional knife making processes to the difference and variety in foods from that region of the world. Not only are the foods different, but how they’re prepared contrast our styles here in the West.

Steels & Hardness

The Japanese people use harder steels with higher carbon content that most of the rest of the world. There are pros and cons to this however. The benefits of this are increase blade retention, meaning less sharpening. However, this also means their blades are more brittle and can chip under certain conditions if not used properly. Also the higher carbon content means the possibility of rust or corrosion if not kept clean and dry immediately after use.

Edge Angles

Asian knives tend to have sharper angles than Western knives. This is made possible by the harder steels mentioned above. In addition, it’s not uncommon to see single-bevel knives in Japan. This is rare in the West.

Blade Thickness

Their blades are thinner, in part because of the sharper angles, but also because Japanese Chefs do more finesse work with their knives. Also, their diets consist more of fish and poultry and less of beef and other tough meats with large bones.

Flat Blades

Most of the time, you’ll see traditional Japanese knives using a flat blade. This assists them in the chopping motion that they use often in their cooking, whereas American chefs like to use more of a rocking motion with a curved blade.

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