Japanese Kitchen Knives: An Essential Part of Japanese Cuisine

Chef cutting sashimi

   Making the most of the natural flavors of ingredients is integral to Japanese cooking, so for chefs, cutting ingredients requires the utmost precision. The way something is cut can affect not just the look but also the taste and texture of the food — which is where razor-sharp Japanese kitchen knives come in. A well-sharpened Japanese knife can cut through ingredients without crushing their fibers, keeping all of the natural flavors and umami taste intact. Let's take a look at what makes Japanese knives special, how they're used, and how they've been honed to suit Japanese cookery.

Various Knives Play a Role in Japanese Cooking

   One distinctive trait of Japanese knives is that their roots can be traced back to the katana swords used by samurai warriors. Western-style knives are double-edged, with the blade edge sharpened on both sides, while Japanese knives are single-edged, with the blade only sharpened on one side — just like samurai swords. Double-edged knives apply force evenly to the ingredients, making it easier to cut straight through them, but single-edged knives are better for producing a beautiful cross-section. This is because of the extremely acute angle of the blade, meaning it can slice smoothly and cleanly through ingredients.

   Japanese knives are usually made of steel, and formed with Japanese sword-crafting techniques that have been passed down over centuries. There are more than 20 different types of Japanese knives, each suited to different ingredients and cooking methods. For example, Japanese cuisine uses a lot of seafood, so there are specific knives for different types of fish and the various ways it can be served.

A range of dishes prepared with Japanese knives.

Specialist knife stores sell knives of all types and sizes, so you can choose them to suit specific ingredients or cooking styles. (Photo courtesy of Sakai Ichimonji Mitsuhide.)

   From the wide range of Japanese knives available, the "big three" that Japanese chefs prize first and foremost are the deba knife, the yanagiba knife, and the usuba knife. These three knives each cover a fundamental aspect of Japanese food preparation: preparing large fish, cutting fish into thin slices, and cutting vegetables. The weighty deba knife has the widest, thickest and heaviest blade, which makes it ideal for cutting through tougher ingredients. It's the perfect tool for removing fish heads and slicing through hard bones with ease.

Deba knives are mostly used for preparing fish. (Photo courtesy of Sakai Ichimonji Mitsuhide.)

   The best knife for slicing raw fish into sashimi strips is the yanagiba knife, which has a distinctively long, narrow, and thin blade. This shape enables it to slice through the fish in one clean movement by drawing the blade toward you, resulting in a smooth surface with a deliciously soft texture.

The long and thin blade of the yanagiba knife is perfect for slicing sashimi.

   Usuba knives have wide blades with a relatively thin cutting edge, which makes them well suited to chopping, peeling and delicately slicing vegetables. The tsuma garnish commonly served with sashimi is made by layering thin, translucent sheets of sliced daikon radish on top of one another and cutting them into beautifully fine strips that resemble white thread.

Usuba knives are used to peel paper-thin sheets of daikon radish with a consistent thickness.

Tsuma garnish made from daikon radish raises the sashimi up on the plate.

Specialist Knives for Different Ingredients

   Japanese people can be somewhat particular about their food — so much so that there are even special knives for different types of seafood. Whether you're cutting fugu (pufferfish), hamo (conger pike), aji (horse mackerel), octopus, or eel, there are various different knives designed specifically for that purpose.

   Fugu contains deadly poison, but when carefully prepared by a licensed chef, it can be safely enjoyed as a winter delicacy. Fugu meat is sinewy and firm, so it needs to be sliced thinly in order to be easy to eat. To achieve this, chefs use a special knife called a fuguhiki knife, which has an even thinner blade than a yanagiba knife. Using the sharp edge of a fuguhiki knife to deftly slice the fish into thin slices (so thin that the design of the plate underneath remains visible) and plating it up with beautiful presentation is the mark of a truly skilled chef.

Fuguhiki knives are made specially for slicing fugu (pufferfish) into sashimi strips. (Photo courtesy of Seisuke Hamono.)

Fugu, a white fish.

Fugu is typically cut into thin slices and beautifully layered to resemble flower petals.

Fugu is sliced so thinly that the design of the plate underneath remains visible.

   Hamo is a white ocean fish in the eel family with a long, thin, cylindrical body that contains many small and hard bones. Chefs use a hamokiri knife (literally, "hamo-cutting knife") to intricately cut through these bones and make the fish easier to eat. The thick and heavy blade makes it possible to cut the meat and bones into thin slices a few millimeters wide, leaving a layer of skin underneath — a technique that produces a light texture and ensures the bones don't get in the way when eaten. Once prepared, the fish can be blanched to make a simple yet delicious dish called hamo no otoshi, or deep-fried in batter to make crispy tempura.

Hamokiri knives are designed specifically for preparing hamo (conger pike). (Photo courtesy of Seisuke Hamono.)

Hamo fish contain lots of small, hard bones throughout their body.

The key is to cut through the bones without cutting off the skin, so that the fish is easy to eat.

Hamo no otoshi is made from blanched hamo served with shredded dried plum, and is a popular summer dish in Kyoto.

Knives Are a Chef's Best Friend

   Japanese knives are often expensive, but they're carefully crafted and can last a lifetime if properly looked after. It's no exaggeration to say that knives are the most important tools in an experienced chef's arsenal, so sharpening them with a whetstone is vitally important. In a way, a chef's knives are a reflection of their ambition — when their knives are freshly sharpened, so is their creativity. Japanese knives were created to bring the best out of ingredients, and will surely continue to push Japanese cooking forward in the future.

Professional sharpeners and chefs use three of four types of whetstones to keep knives sharp.