You certainly don’t have to be a professional chef to get serious about kitchen knives. Anyone who ascends to a certain level on the foodie-scale will find themselves pondering the finer points (and sharper edges) of these indispensable culinary tools. Japan has long been revered for the quality and craftsmanship of the blades forged there. As we looked at in another article, it’s a heritage that spans many centuries, and was pioneered by the master weapons crafters who supplied the samurai.
So what are the main types of Japanese knives that are so respected and sought after by chefs and home cooks across the globe? Let’s take a look.
Perhaps the most instantly recognisable of all Japanese kitchen knives, the Nakiri has a rectangular blade, like a downsized cleaver. It’s a handsome piece of equipment, especially if it’s a Damascus knife with distinctive ripples and waves running through the metal. But when exactly should a cook reach for their Nakiri? The answer is simple: whenever you need to cut vegetables.
Its flat, deep, slender blade is tailor-made for making short work of carrots, cabbages, cucumbers, daikon radishes – you name it. The shape of the Nakiri enables precision work with the veggies, whether you’re looking to slice them up like a human mandolin, turn them into long strips, or Julienne them into a pile of perfect restaurant-style slivers. The depth of the blade allows you to comfortably rest the knuckles of your other hand against the metal as you cut, minimising the risk of nipping yourself. The straight edge also ensures complete cutting of the vegetables, so any pesky fibres are cleanly severed and you won’t be left with scruffy, rough bits. One thing to bear in mind with the Nakiri is that it’s a highly specialised knife, not really suitable for dealing with meat and fish. So it’s ideal for very committed foodies and kitchen completists, but perhaps less necessary for casual cooks.
If you’re after an all-purpose blade in the style of a classic Western chef’s knife, but with all the iconic Japanese craftmanship that culinary aficionados adore, the Santoku might be the one for you. Its name translates as ‘three qualities’, or three virtues. And what are these qualities/virtues? That depends – some say the name refers to how the knife is equally good at cutting meat, fish and vegetables. Others think it refers to the knife’s capacity for chopping, slicing and dicing.
Ultimately, the Santoku knife will suit any cook, no matter what the job at hand is. It’s also quite the looker, thanks to its trademark ‘sheepsfoot’ blade – a style which involves the spine curving down to meet the straight, cutting edge at the end of the blade. Some Santoku knives have a fully rounded tip, others have more of a sharp point like a standard chef’s knife. It’s important to note, however, there’s another great versatile knife in the Japanese repertoire to consider. And that takes us neatly to…
At first glance, the Gyuto knife has a lot in common with the Santoku. It’s another all-rounder (unlike the specialised Nakiri knife), and resembles the Western chef’s knife, making it a great go-to whether you’re chopping vegetables, quartering a chicken, or prepping a gleaming sea bass. But there are some factors that set the knives apart.
For one thing, the Gyuto has a narrower, more pointed tip, which can come in handy for certain kinds of vegetable and meat prep. A Gyuto knife will also tend to have a longer blade with a cutting edge that gradually tapers up to the tip. The taper means you can use the knife for ‘rock chopping’, where you rock the blade from heel to tip to slice up vegetables and herbs finely and rapidly. The length of the blade also comes in handy for smooth, continuous, long slices. Of course, it also means the knife takes up a bit more space, so those with more compact working spaces, or simply prefer to work with a smaller blade, may opt for the Santoku over the Gyuto.
Crafting sushi and sashimi is an art form, and one of the artist’s implements is the Yanagi knife. This has a long, sword-like blade designed to make single, sweeping strokes through plump, fresh fish without the need to saw back and forth and risk making an unclean, rough-looking cut. Yanagi knives also tend to have single bevels, meaning only one side of the blade tapers down to the edge. This makes the knife very sharp indeed – ideal for preparing perfect, jewel-like pieces of fish and seafood for presenting to discerning diners.
While the Yanagi knife certainly isn’t a must for ordinary home kitchens, we thought we’d include it here as it has such an iconic place in Japanese cuisine, and is an example of the exacting engineering standards that make Japanese knives so famous.