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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

It's A Wonderful Knife

I had heard a long time ago that when it comes to the preparation of certain Japanese foods, it can be many years before a chef is even allowed to handle a knife.

But, in reality, it has to do with the seasons...

In Japanese cuisine, it follows the seasons, utilizing the fish, meat and vegetables available at certain times of the year, with the Japanese chef learning all about process and detail.

Always the process and detail.

For example, in the manufacture of sushi, it takes 10-years to become a real sushi chef... to say nothing of becoming a sushi master chef. In that first year a cook will learn how to prepare the rice. In years two through six they learn how to prepare the fish. Years seven, eight and nine is spent learning how to create the perfect tightness of the sushi rolls. But only in year 10 does a cook finally get to make nigiri  - the fish and the rice together.

In Japan, a true sushi chef is one who has spent 10 years learning the art of sushi, and the rest of his or her life mastering it.

For any chef around the world, the tools of the trade are as important as the ingredients they utilize in their cuisine. That means having the right tools to perform the right job in the most perfect way.

Japan, of course, takes its tools of the trade very seriously, perhaps nowhere as seriously as it does for cooking.

Japan has a long history for the art of its blade-making, most specifically for its samurai blades, the katana, though having excellent blades goes back farther than that, to sometime in the 5th century AD when craftsmen needed and manufactured tools to create the the kofun (megalithic tombs) were being constructed.
Daisen-Kofun, near Osaka, is the tomb of Emperor Nintoku, the 15th emperor of Japan between 313 - 399AD.
Later, what with all swords being required for battle, Sakai-shi (Sakai City), situated in Osaka-ken (Osaka Prefecture) became the samurai sword-making capital.

When the Portuguese introduced tobacco to Japan in the 16th century, craftsmen in Sakai also began creating Sakai knives to cut tobacco, gaining an official seal of approval from the Tokugawa Shogunate for it quality and unique sharpness.
Sakai Takayuki Grand Chef Japanese Gyuto/Chef's Knife 240mm (9.5").
Japanese knives are known as hōchō (包丁) and is often used, as the Japanese word 'bōchō', but that's just the generic term, because, as you might suspect, there are a whole lot of different knives, each one designed for a specific purpose, a fact evidenced in Japanese food preparation.

First however, let's look at the composition of a traditional Japanese knife, as there are two types of forging, known as Honyaki and Kasumi.

Honyaki are considered to be the true-forged knife, a top-grade blade forged from hangane (steel), with blue steel or white steel being the preferred material. Apparently, for a 240mm blade, one can expect to pay over $1,000 (¥100,000).

Kasumi are blades manufactured using two materials, such as the high-grade steel above mixed with jigane (soft iron).

Both blades are designed with a similar cutting edge, but since the old days, Japanese knives were all made by Japanese sword makers, the knives too are made with the same steel as the samurai sword katana blade.

The main difference, is that the Honyaki blades are supposed to be able to maintain its sharpness (kirenaga) longer, as well as its hardness, but are more difficult to maintain. Nowadays, most knives are made of stainless steel, so a chef doesn't have to worry about his blade corroding.

Traditionally, Japanese knives are sharpened with a single ground (by grinding) so only one side of the blade actually has a cutting edge. It was felt that an angled blade with one cutting side cuts better with cleaner cuts than a double-beveled edge. It's also why a chef might need more skill to wield one of these blades.

One of the key features on any Japanese blade, is the urasuki, which varies from blade to blade depending on what it will be used for, but all feature a concave aspect to the backside of the blade to reduce drag and adhesion so the food ingredient separates cleanly.

As one might expect, the single-sided blade is manufactured so that the right hand side of the blade is angled and sharp... perfect for right-handed chefs.
Examples of urasuki: (b) is angled on both sides, (a) and (c) only on one side, where (a) is for right hand use and (c) is for left hand use.
What if you are left-handed? Well, single-sided blades are rare, and have to be custom ordered. The guessing is that 30% of chefs use a left-handed blade, while it's a mere 10% of sushi chefs.

Main styles of Japanese knives:
  • Honyaki: True-forged Japanese knife;
Nenohi-270mm Honyaki Yanagiba - Ebony Octagon
  • Deba bōchō: Kitchen knife for fish;
Deba bōchō of different sizes.
  • Maguro bōchō: Very long knives to fillet the bigger tuna fish;
Maguro bōchō.
  • Nakiri bōchō: Standard vegetable knife;
Nakiri bōchō.
  • Santoku bōchō : its name mans 'three virtues', and this Western-styled blade is used for fish, meat and vegetables;
The Santoku-bocho is Japan's multipurpose knife. Above is the R4 Damascus Santoku, onee of the finest you can buy.

  • Kuromori Yanagi-bōchō: long, thin sashimi slicer;
Kuromori Yanagi-bocho, the Japanese Sashimi Kitchen Knife.
  •  Yanagi ba bōchō: literally willow knife, a long, thin sashimi slicer; 
Yanagi ba bōchō
  • Soba kiri: Knife to make soba noodles;
Soba Kiri - Japanese Noodle Knife to cut your own soba noodles.
  • Udon kiri: Knife to make udon noodles;
Udon kiri knife to make udon noodles.
  • Unagisaki hōchō: Japanese eel knife, which one would expect to be very long, but it's not;
Unagisaki hōchō - eel knife.
  • Usuba bōchō: vegetable knife.
Usuba bōchō for veggies.
I'd bet anything that there are many, many more different styles out there, as different forges create different looking blades, but these are the main ones.

It was during the Genroku era (1688–1704) of the Edo-era, that the first Deba bōchō were manufactured.

I know, I know... WTF is deba bōchō? It is 出刃包丁, which means 'pointed carving knife', and is the Japanese kitchen knife used to cut fish, though some rebels also use it to cut meat. Although this blade can be used to shop off the head of a fish, it is better utilized for the delicate process of filleting.

Available in a variety of sizes, the deba bōchō blade provides a thick blade and an obtuse angle on the blade's heel to cut off the fish head (but not large bones), but the blade itself is designed to run along the fish bone to easily separate the fillet.

As you can see from the variances above, it has been altered to make specific knife styles for different uses, to make sushi, sashimi, veggies, meats, etc. I've eaten etc., and it is very tasty.

Though not mentioned above, there is a crab knife known as the kanisaki deba, which has the grind on the left side of the blade (for right-handers) so that when chopping the shell of the shellfish, it does NOT cut the meat. Pretty tricky.
Kanisaki deba crab knife.
Despite Japan's love affair with all things Japanese, it wasn't always the case, as with the introduction of internationalization in the 1850s, Japanese chefs soon saw the interesting European-style blades, and began using the French chef knife.

It was only after World War II, however, that in order to make the knife uniquely Japanese, Japan introduced the santoku, a French-style blade with sharpening occurring on both sides of the blade, but still possessing a Japanese-style acute-angle cutting edges with a very hard temper to increase cutting ability.

Seki-shi (Seki City) in Gifu-ken (Gifu Prefecture) 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.

Another famous center for traditional blacksmiths and knifesmiths is Miki-shi (Miki City) in Hyōgo-ken (Hyōgo Prefecture). 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.

One of the curious things I have read, is that while it is true that Japanese chefs are keen on looking after their own personal blades that only they use, with constant cleaning and sharpening, some cooks have two sets.

The reason behind having two sets is much more pragmatic than ego or practicality - in case one breaks. It's that whole Japanese 'wa' thing - harmony.

Apparently after sharpening a knife after use, the chef will allow the blade to rest for a day in order to restore patina and to remove any metallic smell or taste that could be passed from the metal to the food.

I love the fact that some chefs are thoughtful enough to do that... it just shows that they care about the food they prepare and the customers who savor it.

On the other hand, I have quite a few Japanese friends, who have a lot of metallic fillings in their mouth... and I wonder if the quality of dental work performed can affect one's dinning satisfaction in such a way that a chef might be concerned?

Andrew Joseph

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