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Japanese Knives & The Art of Cutting Like a Chef

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I love knives. They are so…sexy. There’s a quite beauty in these sleek and sexy knives that just makes them just dangerous enough that you want to play with, but not something you want to sleep with. These knives definitely aren’t the $20 Ikea blades that you pick up cause a “knife is a knife”. Knife-making in Japan is a centuries old (samurai swords, anyone?) family tradition where the knowledge and skills are passed on through generations and apprentices dedicate entire lifetimes to hone the art of making the perfect blade.

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The premiere location to get knives in Western Canada (and maybe the whole of Canada) is Knifewear down in good ol’ Inglewood, Calgary. Going into that store is like going to MEC – you know you are going to come out with something cause you “really need it”. I don’t think I have ever walked out of Knifewear (or MEC for that matter) without purchasing something. It simply cannot be be done.

The last time I went into this store, I was looking for something in the $150 range, but ended up walking out with a Suisin INOX Honyaki that cost double that. Traditionally, Japanese knives are forged from carbon-steel which provides the hardness necessary to hold a razor-sharp edge. However, carbon-steel is prone to rusting, so these knives require more care and proper-handling. Often, the carbon-steel inner core is “sheathed” by sandwiching it between outer layers of software stainless steel. These knives have the advantage keeping their sharpness but are protected from rusting, so don’t require as much maintenance.

Honyakis are hand-forged from one single material such as high-carbon steel (carbon steel is the traditional material of choice) which is very hard. Because of this, they are difficult to forge and sharpen, which translates into a a higher price. Also because of high hardness honyakis are more prone to breaking, chipping and cracking. It took about 20 years for Junro Aoki (the designer of the Suisin line) to perfect the technique to sharpen these knives. On the positive side, they can be sharpened to incredibly thin and sharp edges that will hold for a very long time. The advantage of using stainless steel is knives that are super-light and just as sharp as carbon-steel knives. They are also corrosion resistant, and thus, easier to maintain.

The knife pictured in the photos in this post is the Konosuke Sakura and is hands down the most beautiful knife I have ever seen. These knives are similar to Honyakis in that they are also forged from steel but are capable of holding an edge similar to carbon steel knives, keep their edges, are easy to sharpen, and of course, don’t rust. This particular cherry blossom pattern is unique to Konosuke knives.

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So, the point of the lengthy digression is that when Knifewear had a 2-for-1 deal on knife cutting skills, I jumped at the opportunity. There’s no point owning a Ferrari if you drive it like a mini-van.

Some of the more basic tips for keeping your knife sharp are:

  • Don’t ever throw them in the dishwasher
  • Wash and dry the blade by hand after every use
  • Do not cut through bone
  • Use only plastic or wooden cutting boards; never cut on glass, marble, or granite as they are harder than the steel
  • Use the top of the knife to clean things of the cutting board, not the cutting edge
  • Hone your knife after every use using a ceramic honing rod, not a stainless. If it’s a Japanese knife, hone it at a 15 deg angle; European ones at 22 deg.

We also had hands-on lessons on how to baton and julienne veggies, how to dice onions without breaking out into tears like a 12-yr. old, and how to cut herbs to ensure the retain their flavour (the trick is to NOT chop like a madman).

My favourite tip was that for cutting veggies, a nakiri is the way to go as it has a straight edge which prevents the “vegetable accordion” effect that you get from using the traditional curved edge blades that don`t cut all the way through to the bottom.

So, the next time you are in Inglewood, make sure you check out Knifewear. If nothing, you will gain a deeper appreciation for knives as works of art.

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