How to choose a Japanese knife

This information is written very much from the perspective of a non-expert. Sure, I know my santoku from my deba, and can list off the different types of steels and their comparative benefits; but, when you consider the breadth and depth of knowledge of even the most junior of knife geeks, all I know is that I know nothing. But, therein lies the rub. If you are already an aficionado of Japanese knives, the different shapes and finishes and makers, then you will already know exactly what you want and likely have lined up your next few purchases. This info isn’t for you, rather it is for someone who is considering their first or second Japanese knife but might not know where to start or what to choose. And if you are in that position – about to make the singularly most life enhancing purchase of your consumer life – then read on. I can’t pretend that this will give you a definitive answer of what to buy, but it will give you some pointers on what to think about and how to approach the task.

HOW CAREFUL ARE YOU OF YOUR KIT? Take a look at your football boots (or imagine you own a pair, and take a look at these imaginary boots). Are they all clean and polished, free from mud and carefully stashed away in their bag ready for next use? Or are they still stuffed with last match’s socks, muddied and coated in grass, and with a slightly dubious odour and one snapped lace. If you aren’t the person who keeps their kit in the best order, who has never polished neither their shoes nor their silverware, then think carefully about your knife choices. Don’t go for the mirror finish, and maybe select a more forgiving kurouchi or nashi finish or something with stainless cladding. Make sure that you are familiar with the care requirements of carbon steel before you buy. 

HOW BIG ARE YOUR HANDS? This sounds ridiculously obvious but the question stands. If you are long limbed and lengthy of finger, or have big meaty hams of hands, then the knife you want to go for will be slightly larger. Gorilla knuckles? Then make sure the blade is deep enough to accommodate them. The gyuto knives come in two different lengths for you to choose accordingly. Conversely, if you have very small mitts, then you might want to consider a petty or a kobocho knife; no lesser knives but possibly easier to handle.

WHAT DO YOU COOK? The cooking question is probably more relevant for a second purchase – your first knife is likely to be a santoku or gyuto that can be used as an all-purpose chef’s knife. After that, your culinary biases might dictate which shape you go for. Veggie lover? Try a nakiri knife, the traditional tool for slicing and dicing. Bit of a showman, carving roasts or sushi? Go for a sujihiki for the length. Do not, repeat, do not, buy a set of knives. It negates the fun of piecing together a collection and is quite an odd way of approaching it.

WHAT IS THE BUDGET? We have entry level knives around £100 heading all the way up to the £500 mark. With a bigger budget comes more choice in shape, finish and handle but the knives at the lower end of the range are still quality bits of kit that will be an asset to your kitchen. Price isn’t everything but a rough idea of budget will narrow down your choices.

WHAT DO YOU LIKE? While Japanese knives are a highly practical purchase (thereby making them easy to justify), we also think that they are something that tugs on the heartstrings with people having a strong pull towards the shapes and styles and finishes they like. Yes, use your head but also make room for a bit of heart in the decision. If the nashi-finish is calling to you, go for it. If you have a penchant for bone detailing on the ferrule, make it happen. Without trotting out that William Morris quote, get something that you will love looking at and owning as much as you love using it.

Based on the above – if you are a vegetarian buying a second knife, who can be fairly sloppy about their gear, we might suggest this kurouchi nakiri. If you are a keen but small-handed cook on a budget, take a look at this Yamashin kobocho knife. Similarly if you are looking for a blow the budget, Rolls Royce version of a chef’s knife with a really tactile laquer handle, take a look at this beauty.

No hard and fast rules, only suggestions. We are always on hand either at either shop or on email at hello@kitchenprovisions.co.uk and more than happy to answer any questions and to make suggestions about what might suit. Just holla.

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