Do you remember those plastic gray samurai swords we played with as kids? The ones we engaged in epic battles of clanking synthetic with friends and smaller siblings, until one would inevitably bend and stretch to the point that the worn whiteness encircling the blade rendered it useless in combat. (Well, maybe sufficient to slap a younger sibling around, but nothing more).
I returned to my youth when I purchased my first real Japanese blade last month. I was working the kitchen at one of my former jobs as Back of the House Manager and was called upon to help as a morning chef for breakfast banquets. The reality at the time was that while I adore cooking, I have never really bought a proper chef’s knife. My kitchen tasks have always been more of the bookish sort; I balance accounts, find special purveyors, write proposals and books for chefs, and deal with clients, but I had never truly joined the rank and file warriors that make our culinary world so fierce and exciting.
But, with the purchase of my first santoku blade, I was enlisted indeed. Upon grasping its light wide blade, memories of whipping my brother down in the samurai glory of my youth returned. The blade glides effortlessly through vegetables, meat, and fish with a beautiful precision and ease that surpass the fantasies of younger days. Perhaps this nostalgia is perpetuated by the fact that my brother is now much larger and stronger than I, and I can whip him down no more. I can, however, dismember a whole organic chicken with a grace his brute force cannot hope to match.
The story of the Japanese chef knife goes back over 1200 years and is rich in the history of samurai and kitana sword making. Today’s chef knives are forged in the tradition of methods used by sword craftsmen for generations: using a combination of shiro-ko (white steel) and ao-ko (blue steel).
Both are derived from a form of steel called tamahagane, produced only in western Japan in a high heat tatara, or smelter. The amalgamation of two types of steel allows for greater strength and flexibility, making the knives exceptional instruments for culinary professionals. Traditional Japanese knives, like swords, are sharpened on one side of the blade to allow for a sharper cutting edge.
This technique lends itself to more sensitive culinary work, such as separating delicate fish flesh from bones and turning vegetables into thin sheets, or katsuramuki. Like its predecessor in weaponry, these knives are designed for optimum serration and precision.
The production of Japanese chef knives blossomed at the end of World War II, when General MacArthur banned Japanese sword making, forcing many skilled craftsmen to focus their attention to the fashioning of kitchen knives. The knives, true to their ancestor’s swift and impeccably designed forms, are well worth the investment.
The Korin Collection, based in New York City, offers both traditional Japanese pieces and western-style knives. The western cousin is used more precisely for meat and other world cuisines newer to the Japanese culture.
My friend, gluten free specialist chef Arjuna Bull, brought a representative from Korin Japanese Knife Collections to the restaurant to do a knife-sharpening exhibition in May. I stood watching, enthralled as Chiharu Sugai smoothed the blade of his Yanagi nine and a quarter inch tool. Using different grades of stones, he provided examples of various effects to the blade’s precision. It was utterly artistic to watch. Chiharu visits restaurants often for sharpening demonstrations; contact him @ (800) 626.2172 for availability. Also, if you live in New York, or are planning a visit, I highly recommend visiting the Korin Showroom for one of their frequent exhibitions (Korin Showroom, 57 Warren Street NY, NY 10007.)
The very helpful Mr. Sugai recommended the santoku to me because, as I was primarily going to be using this blade at home and only occasionally in a professional kitchen, it would be a better fit for both my wife and myself. Not that my wife can’t handle a Masamoto Ao-ko Layered steel Hongasumi Yanagi blade, but I prefer not to have a knife of that intensity around the house with a spirited woman of French Irish roots. The truth is, knives of this caliber have a special feeling that is hard to translate to the page, and I knew the santoku was the knife for me the moment I grasped the blade.
The sword was the very essence of the samurai tradition and, thankfully, has filtered into today’s culinary world. Thanks to many skilled craftsmen and new availability, we are now able to enjoy the benefits of the same Japanese blade used by many legendary warriors of the past. (Of course, our battles now lie in the kitchen, butchering and preparing dishes for our patrons.) And while I highly recommend purchasing one for yourself, I must warn that the blade cuts much deeper than those plastic swords of our youth. Trust me, I know.