My friend Mat just got a sweet new Japanese knife. For the uninitiated, shopping for Japanese knives is intimidating because of the huge range of steel choices, blade shapes and tapers, handle types and manufacturing methods. But for us geeks, researching and deliberating over product minutiae is a hobby in itself, and the more esoteric the product category the better!
I did my research and shopping over five years ago, and these are the pieces I bought:
From top to bottom we have a Nenox S1 Gyuto (240mm), a Suisin Yanagi (appx. 9.5″ blade), a Suisin Deba (8″), and a Bunmei Deba (5.25″). As you can see, the collection I’ve assembled covers a wide range of functionality- a chef’s knife, a precision slicer, a heavy duty chopper capable of going through bone, and a small general purpose chopper.
Technically I don’t consider the Nenox or the Bunmei to be real Japanese knives; they are really kind of half-Japanese (like Mat, haha). You can tell just by looking at the Nenox that its design, both in blade shape and handle, is that of a western-style chef’s knife. But it is hand made in Japan and its super fine edge appears to be single-sided, as Japanese knives traditionally are. I’m also pretty sure I’ve seen Iron Chef Morimoto with at least one Nenox in his knife kit, so there you go.
The Bunmei is half-Japanese the other way, i.e. its appearance is completely traditional Japanese but it is produced by the same manufacturer and using the same molybdenum/vanadium steel as the ultra-contemporary Global knives you see at your local department store. Since the molybdenum/vanadium steel is more durable, it is a good choice for this knife since the small deba is meant to be a chopping knife that takes a lot of abuse. Think of it as a small knife with a lot of heft, intended for chopping herbs or making ground meat or fish for tartare. That sort of thing requires a vertical chopping action (as opposed to a slicing motion), and consequently you’re repeatedly banging the edge onto your cutting board so a more durable steel is preferable for that application. I would say that the small deba is the most used and abused knife in daily use because I prefer to use a small cutting board whenever possible (for easier cleanup) and when chopping veggies, the little deba is the ideal tool. Where it really is without peer is when it comes to chopping herbs, especially parsely. The heft of the deba allows you to really bang through it and chop things up finely and swiftly. The big slicing/rocking motion you have to use with a chef’s knife just feels less efficient.
If the small deba is the most utilitarian blade type, I would say that the yanagi is least useful since it is primarily a slicer, and for anything you want to slice you can usually just take a chef’s knife to it all the same. The only real advantage I’ve found in using a yanagi is when working with a whole fish fillet, like a side of salmon. With a yanagi, you can run the blade gently over the inner surface of the fillet to feel if there are any pin bones left. You just don’t get that sort of feedback from a big clumsy ol’ chef’s knife. After you’ve used a yanagi to prep fish once, you’ll know what I mean. Trying to go back to a chef’s knife for that task will make you feel about as deft as a village blacksmith. This is probably why the yanagi is ubiquitous amongst sushi chefs.
The large deba is good for butchering where you may need to go through bone and cartilage. This may seem an odd task for Japanese knives which are known to have more delicate edges than their western counterparts, but have a look at the knife from this angle:
That spine is about 5/16″ thick. The only thing in your knife drawer with that kind of heft would be your meat cleaver and it would not have anything close to the razor edge of this bad boy. This tool is a beast that can also handle precision work.
Anyway, if you’re interested in learning more about Japanese knives, Mat highly recommends the book An Edge in the Kitchen: The Ultimate Guide to Kitchen Knives — How to Buy Them, Keep Them Razor Sharp, and Use Them Like a Pro. There’s so much to learn about this fascinating subject. So you want a cool hobby? Forget stamps, collect Japanese knives!