Japanese Kitchen Knife Types And Styles

Although the art of blades-making has been long popular in Japan, the trend of manufacturing of highly specialised cooking knives became widespread only in the 16th century, when blacksmiths working for members of Japan’s noble soldier class, the samurai, competed against one another to create the best swords and knives. Eventually, as different regional cuisines began to develop across Japan, merchants from different regions began learning the craft. In the east, where more-rustic cooking methods reigned, stout and functional straight blades were predominant; in the west, more-delicate, pointed styles found favour. Hand-forged Japanese knives, the best of which are fabricated in the city of Sakai, are usually made in one of four different styles.

The most commonly used types in the Japanese kitchen are:

  • the deba bocho (fish filleting)
  • the santoku hocho (all-purpose utility knife)
  • the nakiri bocho and usuba hocho (Japanese vegetable knives) and
  • the tako hiki and yanagi ba (sashimi slicers).

Most knives are referred to as hōchō (包丁?), or sometimes -bōchō (due to rendaku), but sometimes have other names, like -kiri (〜切り?, “… cutter”).

The knife known as kamagata usuba originated in Osaka and has a distinctively curved tip suited to intricate vegetable-carving methods, as well as juliennes. The kamagata usuba shown has a handle of Japanese yew, an evergreen native to Japan, and—a rarity among old-style Japanese knives—a blade of stainless steel.

Usaba Kitchen Knife

Less delicate kitchen tasks like butchering poultry and breaking down whole fish traditionally call for a deba, which has a broad, wedge-shaped blade that can easily cut through bone and cartilage.

The usuba, originally from Tokyo, is considered the most versatile of traditional Japanese knives; its sturdy, wide blade is well designed for slicing vegetables. The usuba is the preferred tool for katsuramuki, the technique of cutting vegetables (like daikon and cucumber) into paper-thin sheets and scrolls. The usuba shown is made of carbon steel; its handle, attached to a buffalo horn collar, was carved from magnolia wood.

The takobiki (also called takohiki), also developed in Tokyo, is customarily used for preparing sashimi and, especially, the octopus. The type of knife shown is called a suminagashi takobiki, which is distinguished by an elegant wave pattern on the blade, a result of a special forging process.

Used mainly in the preparation of sushi and sashimi, the venerated yanagi (yanagi-ba) has a thin, elongated blade and a slightly curved tip that make it ideal for producing paper-thin slices from fish filets. The yanagi shown was forged by the master blacksmith Keijiro Doi in Sakai and has a core of carbon steel fused to an iron jacket; a piece of carved water buffalo horn attaches the blade to the ebony handle.

As you can see, the choice is enormous and each type of knife has its own pros and cons. In case you are thinking of getting yourself the most general knife, we recommend Gyuto – which simply means – chef’s knife. Enjoy!

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