A Guide to Japanese Kitchen Knives

The arranged blades are refreshingly shiny and smooth. However, once held in the hands of a chef, it emits a sharp and beautiful glow. Blades, which are hammered by craftsmen and polished by chefs, slice through fish, meat and vegetables as if the flesh pops open by itself. The world of Japanese kitchen knives is based on the essence of Japanese cuisine, which is to “make the most of nature.”

Kikka-kabuChrysanthemum Cut Turnip (2019)Original Source: Kurata

Aioi-Musubi (2019)Original Source: Kurata

Thinly Sliced Sheets of Radish (2019)Original Source: Kurata

Japanese Knives (2019)Original Source: Kurata

Knives tell all about the chefs 

The essence of Japanese cuisine is to make the most of nature. Therefore, the knives that slice the ingredients, which are considered blessings from nature, are very important themselves,”  says a young chef named Mr. Masaki Kurata, who operates a restaurant called “Soba Kappo Kurata” in Tokyo. Masaki has more than 20 knives with his name engraved, which conveys how much they cherish their tools including their knives.

Kikka-kabuChrysanthemum Cut Turnip (2019)Original Source: Kurata

“In the Japanese cuisine, it’s said that you can immediately tell what level of work a particular chef does by simply looking at their knives”, says Masaki. “It not only shows how carefully you treat ingredients and tools, but also indicates your technics as well as your stance and attitude towards cooking. It reveals everything. There’s an aspect of spirituality in it too. It seems that many people have developed interest in knives as tools, and I think it’s natural that they sense beauty in the knives. Because the origin of the present kitchen knife is a Japanese sword. After the Samurai era came to a conclusion after entering the Meiji period, and the sword banning decree was established, the sword smiths who all lost their job started making Japanese knives. It has succeeded the beauty of Japanese swords.”

Vegetables Cut into Decorative Shapes (2019)Original Source: Kurata

Various cuttings of vegetables. From the top left: Round cut, square cut, pentagon, crescent moon. From the middle left: chrysanthemum (turnip), octagon, and Roppo (meaning, “six laws”). From the bottom left: chrysanthemum (daikon radish), rectangle slice, half-moon slice and quarter slice.

Yori-Ninjin (2019)Original Source: Kurata

The word “yori” in “yori carrots” is derived from the act of twisting multiple threads into a single, thick thread. The phrase, “ude ni yori wo kakeru” (having the enthusiasm of making full use of one’s skill) also has the same etymology.

Kikka-kabuChrysanthemum Cut Turnip (2019)Original Source: Kurata

Cutting is the most respectable part of cooking

So, why are there so many types of knives in the first place? Chefs skillfully use various types of knives that are different from household ones. Their knives are short to long, thin to thick, and small to large knives. Masaki smilingly reassured me that there’s good reasons why. “It’s necessary to take great care during the slicing process to directly express the richness, delicateness and seasonality of Japanese ingredients on a plate. There is certain combination of ingredients that is suited to each of the Japanese traditional “five basic cooking methods.” Taste, preparation and decoration methods also naturally change depending on the season and the condition of the ingredients. For example, the chef with the greatest responsibility in the French cuisine is the chef who makes the sauce, but in the Chinese cuisine, it’s the chef who conducts the final cooking using heat. In the Japanese cuisine, it is the chef who “cuts” the ingredients. They are referred to as the Hana-ita, who has the greatest responsibility.

Thinly Sliced Strings of Radish (2019)Original Source: Kurata

Vegetables Cut into Decorative Shapes (2019)Original Source: Kurata

I examined some of Masaki’s decorative vegetable garnishes, which included crescent moon made from daikon radish, and a lovely chrysanthemum flower made from turnips. Carrots are thinly cut like strings, which create a swirly, rhythmic wave design. “The Usuba knife (rectangular-shaped thin-bladed knife) is generally used for vegetables. Gorgeous designs such as the chrysanthemum turnip (second photo, center left) seem the most difficult, but the most challenging is the plain round cut (second photo, top left), which looks quite simple on the outset. It’s more difficult to make a beautiful, perfect circle, which serves as the basics of everything, rather than making something symmetrical. When peeling daikon radishes or cutting carrots, they are sliced at an angle against the fiber. The Tate-ken and Yoko-ken techniques refer to cutting parallel to the fiber, and vertically against the fiber, respectively. Effectively utilizing various techniques results in better texture and presentation.”

Sushi Cut into Decorative Shapes (2019)Original Source: Kurata

An Edomae (Edo-style) sushi is defined as sushi that has been marinated, stewed, scorched, etc. From the top row, left: chutoro, red tuna. From the second row, left: mackerel, big fin reef squid. From the third row, left: conger, prawn. From the bottom row, left: sea urchin, scallops, and red snapper.

Shelf at Kurada, a Soba Restaurant (2019)Original Source: Kurata

A Shinto shrine is also displayed on the shelf that holds various artistic plates used at Kurata’s restaurant.

Pike Conger Cut Open Cleanly (2019)Original Source: Kurata

Finding the best use of ingredients

Masaki further notes that the best way to cut up a fish is so that “no part goes to waste”. Each of his Edo-style sushi exhibits different size, shape and ways of being sliced.  “Although fish pieces used in sushi are rectangular, it obviously comes from a single, whole fish. It’s important to decipher the most delicious part to use, and figure out how to slice it off. For example, fresh bonito meat is thinly sliced, whereas those that have been rested for some time are sliced thick. It’s not always the case that fresh meat is better. Fishes have bones, so how you prepare it is another important aspect. For example, a special knife is used to perform a technique called Sakudori on a tuna, which entails slicing the meat while avoiding the white strings inside. This is usually handled by the most proficient chef.”

Pike Conger Deboned (2019)Original Source: Kurata

After the array of colorful sushi came a transparent, white fish called a pike conger. It’s called Hamo, pike conger, written in Kanji as “fish” and “plentiful” from its rich vitality, and is known as a seasonal summer tradition especially in Kyoto. It’s very bony, and is generally prepared with a special knife called the Hamo-giri knife.  “To be precise, we are actually ‘cutting its bone.’ Its preparation method is generally the same as that of Anago conger eek or Unagi eel, but Hamo fish especially has a lot of bones, which are nearly impossible to remove. Hence, a special knife is used to finely cut the bones to improve its texture and how it’s received by the throat. Semi-slicing the meat around the skin will produce a soft, fluffy texture it's parboiled.”

How to Make Pike Conger #1 (2019)Original Source: Kurata

Hamo Fish Preparation:Step 1

After rinsing, cut it open all the way to its tail.

How to Make Pike Conger #2 (2019)Original Source: Kurata

Step 2

Slice open the middle bone are as well.

How to Make Pike Conger #3 (2019)Original Source: Kurata

Step 3

Cut off the middle bone from the tail. There are also other methods such as removing the bone that are used to prepare an anago.

How to Make Pike Conger #4 (2019)Original Source: Kurata

Step 4

After removing the fins, use a special knife to cut its bones. It’s said that a distinct sound is made when doing so, as if you’re grinding some sand.

Serving Pike Conger (2019)Original Source: Kurata

The Hamo fish is then parboiled, cooled in cold water, and then mounted in a plate. It’s commonly eaten together with shredded dried plum.

Japanese Knives (2019)Original Source: Kurata

After researching about the Japanese cuisine, you’ll soon realize that a lot of Japanese idioms are derived from food. And knives are no exception. “A great example is ‘tsuke yakiba’ (thin veneer)”, smiles Masaki. “This is a term used by sword smiths, which means that no matter how much you sharpen the surface, it will soon lose its sharpness and will be rendered useless if you don’t sharpen the core. I sharpen my knives every day, even those that haven't been used that day. The shapes of the blade would be changed while sharpening, as if it’s integrated with my hand. But once you learn how to use a knife as if it’s your own finger tips without needing to put extra pressure, you will soon no longer need to sharpen it as much. Being able to use a knife as if its part of their body can be said to be a dream of all aspiring chefs.”

Credits: Story

Cooperation with:
Soba Kappo Musashi Koyama Kurata

Photos: Misa Nakagaki
Text: Makiko Oji
Edit: Saori Hayashida
Production:Skyrocket Corporation

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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