Every profession has its own lingo, and the professional kitchen is no different. But can you speak Japanese knife?
So here, in no particular order, is a quick and dirty guide – a ‘bluffer’s guide’ if you like – to some Japanese knives, their names and what they’re used for…
The translation from the Japanese is simply ‘vegetable knife’. It is square tipped and normally 165-1800mm in length. Makes mincemeat of vegetables (if you like the occasional mixed metaphor). Apparently it’s a little trendy right now. Also spelled Nakkiri in some quarters. Is a good choice for the start out chef as a general knife (since it doesn’t have a dangerous point and it’s easier to learn to chop vegetables with one) and a little easier to use than the standard Gyuto chef’s knife (see below).
Officially called a ‘Santoku-Bocho’, the Santoku has a shorter blade than the Gyuto chef’s knife (up to 200mm) and, although rounded like the Nakiri, it has a sharp tip. Literally in Japanese it means ‘three virtues’, that is ‘slicing, dicing and mincing’, or ‘meat, fish, vegetables’, depending on which way you look at it.
The Gyuto – officially called a ‘Wa Gyuto’ – is the Japanese equivalent of the European chef’s knife, but with some important differences. The theory is that it was designed specifically for cutting beef into large slices – the word Gyuto means ‘cow blade’. Today it is regarded as a multi-purpose chef’s knife suitable for meat, fish and vegetables/fruit, but its much lighter handle moves the centre of gravity of the knife towards the blade, which allows for a more precise cutting style than conventional chefs knives. Its blade is made of harder steel and so is thinner and sharper than its European cousins and is generally 13cm-38cm in length.
Yanagiba literally means ‘willow blade’ in Japanese and is specifically used for preparing sashimi (we refer to it as a sashimi knife). The blade is long and narrow and generally 20-30 cm long, sometimes longer. It is also known as ‘Shobu’. Although originally designed for slicing boneless fish for sashimi and sushi, it is often used as a general knife for any thin slicing that needs to be done. Little known fact: the very sharp blade and angle used when cutting fish minimises damage to the fish meat and helps retain the original flavour and texture. It also makes it a lot easier to produce wafer thin slices.
The Deba was designed specifically to prepare and fillet fish, although it can also be used for poultry. Again its advantage over other knife types for filleting is the centre of gravity, which sits at the heel of the blade, making the knife nimble and precise. Japanese chefs have a bewildering array of Deba knives to choose from, depending on exactly what they are using it for – the Miroshi Deba for example is specifically for filleting fish. Since it has a point, the Deba lends itself to filleting as the user can feel where the bones are. Traditionally a Deba is used to cut fish heads in half and to dress crabs by opening the legs and claws. A Deba however should not be used for cutting larger bones. Debas normally have blade lengths between 150mm-330mm.
These are just a few of the different types of Japanese chefs knives, but we counted 119 different types of Japanese knives listed on one website – check it out here.