Japanese Food: Japanese Kitchen Knives Sakai Knives
Japanese Kitchen Knives: Sakai Knives
Those who cook for a living, or as a way of life, often take pride in having the best kitchen knives. Until recently knives from Germany were held in that regard, but now chefs around the world are recognizing Japan as another contributor of top standard cutlery.
What makes Japanese knives outstanding are the qualities that result from a centuries old practice of craftsmanship. Traditionally made Japanese kitchen knives inherit techniques employed in making katana, the swords of the samurai, that were not only weapons upon which warriors' lives depended; they were symbols of honor and devotion to discipline.
From the beginning, metallurgists in Japan had to deal with the limited resources available on the archipelago. Rather than forge blades from a single grade of steel, they learned to combine the durability of iron or low carbon steel with high carbon steel's capacity for a fine edge.
There are various methods for forging and laminating this kind of blade, but generally the result is a strong and resilient body which exposes an edge that can take on razor sharpness.
By the time a high quality Japanese knife has reached that stage of composition and shaping, it will already have passed through the hands of two or three master craftsmen. When it is ready to be ground and sharpened, it goes on to others.
Like the katana, most Japanese kitchen knives have a single-ground edge. They are beveled only on one side. This means that the angle along the cutting edge is twice as acute as a double ground blade, with the same bevel on both sides. This characteristic gives the Japanese knife a keener edge than its German counterparts.
Sakai has a long history of iron and steel working that began when the area around the present day city became a center of political power. The oldest manifestations of that power, surviving from as long as eighteen centuries year ago, are the huge kofun burial mounds of ancient rulers of the land. Building those mounds required the making of iron tools.
As the structure of government in ancient Japan took shape and the samurai class emerged from the same area, blacksmiths there found themselves well situated for the production of the swords and knives needed by the gentry. Forging such weapons challenged their skills and techniques, and won them a reputation for fine work.
The beginning of the seventeenth century brought with it the beginning of a new age called the Tokugawa or Edo Period, that was an era of peace. Samurai turned from battle to entertainment, alongside the merchant class. The makers of blades found a new niche in the tools for preparing animals and vegetables for customers' tables.
It may have been a foreign influence, however, that allowed Sakai to clinch its position as a cutlery center of Japan. Tobacco was imported in the sixteenth century and Sakai's craftsmen began making knives to cut it.
The Tokugawa shogunate deemed these knives to be of such uniquely high quality that, in 1761, it allowed the blades to be engraved with the Sakai Kiwame (Sakai Exclusive) mark. Some historians suggest that this created a monopoly for the blacksmiths of Sakai. In 1982 the Ministry of Trade, Economy, and Industry designated Sakai cutlery as a Traditional National Craft.
At the beginning of the Tokugawa Period Sakai began producing two kinds of kitchen knives that remain the core of the Japanese chef's collection to the current day. One is called the usuba. It is usually a rectangular knife, although a variation where the spine of the tip end curves down to meet the blade, rather than being squared off, is popular in western Japan. The usuba is used for cutting vegetables, and in trained hands it can turn daikon or carrots into sheets as thin as onion skin or threads that resemble delicate pine needles, and can shape vegetable slices into silhouettes of insects, leaves, and flowers.
The other is called a deba. It's outline is similar to a western chef's knife, but the curve of the blade is uniquely suited to gutting and filleting fish. Some variants of the deba are quite hefty and made to resist chipping so the heel can easily cut through the bones in fish and meat.
Following after these two, a plethora of different shapes and sizes of Sakai cutlery developed. Most have very specific uses such as the sushi-kiri, reminiscent of a scimitar, used for slicing rolled sushi, or the little spikes that are used to fix the heads of eels to a chopping board before they are filleted. You can get a good idea of the extent by visiting the Hamono Museum in Sakai where examples fill the showcases.
Most of these exotic blades are useful to professional chefs, but not usually found in the home. There is one, though, that will appeal to those with a taste for homemade sushi or sashimi. The yanagi, a long, sword-like knife is designed for slicing pieces of raw fish with a single stroke, leaving a smooth, gleaming surface that is an integral part of the gourmet experience.
Conveniently there is a shop attached to the Hamono Museum that carries a wide variety of Sakai cutlery with a range of prices that will suit most budgets. There are many other, competitive cutlery shops within Sakai, or you can order from suppliers on the internet.
Keep in mind, however, that quality does come at a price. These hand-crafted blades, set into natural wood handles, with collars of water buffalo horn will cost anywhere between ten (100 USD) to one hundred thousand yen (1000 USD).
On the other hand, you will be taking home a tool that is esthetically pleasing, will last a lifetime, and with a little care, makes time spent in the kitchen a more satisfying experience.
Sakai HAMONO Museum is located at 1-30, Zaimoku-cho-Nishi 1-chome, Sakai-ku, Sakai-shi, Osaka 590-0941, Japan (3 minutes walk from the Myogokujimae Station of the Hankai Line)
Text + images Alan Wiren
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