Learn About Japanese Chef Knives (Hocho)

The Japanese chef knife bears resemblance to swords of the samurai warriors. Crafted with a thin, fine blade unmatched by western stainless steel knives, the Japanese knife is a sushi chef's most prized tool. Said to have a soul (tamashii) instilled by the crafts-person who made the knife, only after mastering the knife will the chef discover the tamashii.

A sushi chef needs good knives and needs to master their use because each dish must delight all five senses - sight, taste, smell, touch and sound. Foods must be cut into bite sized, visually appealing pieces. The qulity of the knife and the chef's skill in using it directly affect the texture and look of the sushi.

True Japanese chef knives are made with a thin blade made of carbon steel. Carbon steel knives (hon-yaki) can hold a sharper edge than knives made with stainless steel blends. Carbon steel is more brittle however and dropping the knife or cutting something hard can result in chipping or breaking the blade.

Another traditional blade is formed of carbon steel and iron, called tanzo. Tanzo blades are more flexible and are less likely to chip or break and they hold their edge longer than the hon-yaki blade.

For easy care, most lower priced Japanese knives are now made of stainless steel. The blade craftsmanship is still excellent, but the blades will not rust if they're not immediately dried after use.

Japanese knife blades with little or no stainless steel need to be frequently washed and dried immediately to reduce staining or rusting. Oil the blade once in a while, particularly if you won't be using the knife for a length of time.

Some Japanese knives are ground on one side of the blade so a right ground blade is for right-handed chefs, slicing from the right edge of the food while a left ground blade is for left handed users. These are typically the Yanagiba and Deba knives. Nakiri and Gyutou knives are usually double sided and hollow-ground.

Types of Japanese Chef Knives:

Yanagiba-bocho - The Sashimi Knife

The sashimi knife is a long, slender knife, shaped like a willow leaf, and are 9 to 12 inches long. When highly sharpened the knife can slice through food with little pressure. This style of knife is a must for slicing sashimi and is also excellent for slicing other meats.

Deba-bocho - The Fish Butchering Knife

This knife is used for filleting fish and cutting chicken and other meats. It has a heavy blade about 6-7 inches long.

Nakiri-bocho - The Vegetable Knife

The nakiri is a thin bladed rectangular knife with a straight, hollow-cut blade, sometimes resembling a samurai sword. Indispensable for slicing, peeling and chopping vegetables.

Gyutou-bocho - The Chef Knife

The gyutou knife is a nice all purpose chef's knife. It has a pointed, hollow-cut blade and is good for slicing meat, fish and vegatables.

Caring for Japanese Knives

It is important to properly sharpen your Japanese knives. Especially the Yanagiba and Nakiri need to be sharpened frequently to maintain their superior cutting edge. Do not use a common V sharpener as the angle of the sharpening rods is not correct for these knives. Instead, it is best to use a sharpening stone such as the classic King K-80 1000 & 250 grit combination stone.

To use a sharpening stone, prepare the stone by placing on a damp towel. Lubricate the stone surface with a several drops of honing oil. Never use food oils on a sharpening stone. Smooth out and rub in the oil to coat the stone surface.

Use the coarse surface for reshaping the blade edge if needed. Use the fine surface for sharpening. Hold the knife at the same angle as its original cut. For the Yanagiba and Nakiri knives this is generally shallower than the typical 20 degree angle of North American blades.

Draw the knife edge slowly across the stone from heal to tip. Repeat this several times (4-6). For single sided knives such as Deba and Yanagiba, stop here. For double sided knives flip the knife over and repeat for the other side. Use the same angle every time.