About Japanese Kitchen Knives

No.136

At a Japanese restaurant in Kyoto
At a Japanese restaurant in Kyoto

This will be a bit of story.

When I talk about Japanese knives, I have to tell you about my ancestors. My great-great-great grand father was an artisan making traditional Japanese candles in the headquaters of the powerful feudal ruler the Maeda Clan in Kanazawa. If you are not so familiar with the Japanese history, it may be difficult to understand, but anyway in a short sentence my ancestor was making a lot of candles for his big Samurai boss. Of course there was no electricity then and candles were the hand made source of the light. I really don’t know how the candles were made at that time but still now Japanese traditional candles are being made by a small number of craftsmen in Japan using the wax from the tree called “HAZE” or “NUKA” (rice bran) and Japanese Washi paper for the candle core since 16th century. Japanese traditional candles are said to be much brighter and give very little smoke. I grew up hearing about my ancestor’s craftmanship and his professional mastery attitude running in my family blood and specially my grandfather was the total replica of the candle artisan.

My grandfather was not a Samurai, he was born after the Restoration and chose to work for the Ministry of Post and Communication. Yet I consider he was another artisan Samurai at heart and he was a very skillful Japanese knife master. Everyday when he came home from work he enjoyed Sashimi (thin slices of fresh raw fish) and drank warm Sake before dinner. It was my grandmother’s job to go to the Omicho fish market during the day and buy a piece of fresh fish for the evening, I helped her to heat Sake, and it was my grandfather’s job to slice the fish with his favorite Japanese knife particularly made for the task of preparing Sashimi.

Sashimi on the rock, in Kanazawa
Sashimi on the rock, in Kanazawa

It was like a ritual ceremony when my grandfather cut the fish in the kitchen, both my grandmother and I had to get out because he had to concentrate on cutting with the extremely sharp knife, distraction was never approved. As you may know, Japanese traditional knives have been made of carbon steel and they rust easily. The knife master often stood in the kitchen and took care of his knives. I remember the sound and the color of the dark gray water, I was his little apprentice of knife mastery and he was very fond of showing me how he sharpened Japanese kitchen knives. I am now taking care of my kitchen knives as much as I can, but to be honest with you much of his knife mastery blood has not been poured in me, I am not such a great successor. My kitchen knives were crying for help and I really wished my grand father was still alive to help me…

The other day I visited a store in Oslo where a sign, written in Japanese “包丁研ぎます”  which means “I can sharpen your cooking knives for you”,  was displayed on the window. Inside the shop 2 men were discussing over the counter, one was a Japanese man, he was the owner of the shop, showing a long Japanese knife like my grandfather’s one, to a Norwegian customer. Their conversation went on and on but I did not mind waiting for them to finish, I was learning a lot by overhearing the interesting information about the Japanese knife. On the way home I was thinking about Japanese knives. They are not just kitchen tools but are our culture which we are very proud of. The sharpness and the durability of the blade attract many people but it is not only that. When you want to buy a new kitchen knife in Japan, you can go to a shop specialized in them and get good advise from a knife specialist. Living in Norway I really miss this Japanese kitchen knife culture.

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I feel there are so many things in common between Japanese knives and Japanese bento boxes, both are practical tools supported by the long Japanese culinary culture and history. They come in different designs and sizes, they are both getting so popular abroad. I got curious and started to research Japanese knives outside Japan and found some interesting similarities. Just like Bento&co was started by a married couple Erico and Thomas, a company was started in USA by a Japanese wife and an American husband who fell so much in love with Japanese kitchen knives that they started to export them. There was another company in the lower part of Manhattan in New York who helps professional chefs with high quality Japanese kitchen knives and provide information and education of the better mastery of Japanese kitchen knives. Their beautiful showroom is quite something and it is on my list of places to visit when I come to New York.

Many people already know Japanese kitchen knives are famous for its sharpness and durability. Well, that is true, I am very satisfied with the quality of these two Japanese stainless knives which I recently bought from Bento&co. They are really sharp!!

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Unless you are a professional cook or you have organized work habits to maintain your kitchen knives at their best, I do not recommend hobby cooks to buy a carbon steel knife as it rusts easily. It requires a lot of maintenance; you have to rinse it right after you used it and wipe with a cloth and completely dry it. The carbon steel knife will start control you before you know it. Some years ago I wanted to buy a carbon steel Japanese traditional knife called USUBA from a Japanese knife artisan, it is a very thin Chisel-ground blade knife and a wonderful knife to cut vegetables. But I gave up after I heard from the knife master that even they think it is so difficult to sharpen them. A thin blade chips off very easily and it usually comes as a big knife as it needs to have a certain weight.  A such a large blade knife is not an easy object to store in a regular home kitchen drawer…. Specially when we use a kitchen knife to make a bento. I think a set of a stainless all-round knife and a petite knife will do better. You can cut an acidic fruit with a little more ease for example. I don’t want to be controlled by a kitchen knife!

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New technology has been improving material development for kitchen tools in Japan and stainless steel is one of the staple material. Specifically in terms of kitchen knives, there are now many different kinds of fine stainless steel materials to attain better and longer edge retention and sharpness. Japanese steel manufacturers have been researching different chemical elements and that is really contributing the excellent quality of Japanese kitchen knives. Carbon increases edge retention and hardness of the steel, Chromium increases hardness and provides more resistance to rust, a substance called Molybdenum is popular as it improves many characteristics of steel.

If you are fond of cooking, I think it will be fun for you to try a Japanese kitchen knife. I imagine a new phase will open in your cooking life. I do recommend a stainless knife but if you like to learn more about Japanese kitchen knives, there are many good sites on internet to study about 50 different kinds of Japanese traditional knives in Japan, it is quite amazing.

Although stainless steel knives have good rust resistance, it does get rust or discolor if you don’t properly take care of it. After you wash it, wipe it with a clean towel and dry. After I get better at maintaining my kitchen knives, I like to buy a good Japanese Sashimi knife as we eat a lot of Salmon here in Norway and I am so sure the knife will be put to use very much in my daily cooking. The basic maintenance is very important for every kitchen knives, long or short, Chisel-ground or Double-bevelled.
I think my grandfather would agree with me.

xxx Rie
Great-great-great granddaughter of an artisan Samurai

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