Masamoto Knife Shop, Tsukiji, Tokyo (photo by the author)
After years of using and sharpening knives, slicing, and gutting fish, I came to understand that it’s not the price, nor the quality of the knife that matters, it’s how you sharpen it.
Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against a beautifully crafted, high-quality carbon steel, expensive knives.
I am saying you there is something you should know about knives before talking out the price and quality.
One of the most experienced Sushi Chefs I’ve ever worked with, Jin-san, used only two sets of ordinary chef’s knives he bought at a restaurant supply store. They each cost around $15, but when he used them, he cut the fish faster and more beautifully than anyone I’d ever seen.
“You see I have several Sashimi knives that cost $1,000, $2,000, but you know what? Neither of them hardly makes an appearance at the sushi bar. These $15 knives do the work just fine because I sharpen them well.”
Then, I had a fascinating encounter at a knife store in Tokyo. This experience taught me a valuable lesson about knife quality.
It was 2005, I was strolling in the Kappa-Bashi district in Asakusa, Tokyo. Kappa-Bashi is the restaurant supply mecca of Tokyo, with over 170 stores on an 800 meter-long800-meter-long street. You can find just about anything you need to run a restaurant in Kappa-Bashi. Japanese plates, Western-style plates, pots to serve noodles, soup dishes, pans of all sizes, shapes, and colors; chopsticks ranging from $1 to $30 a pair; traditional Red Lanterns, with calligraphy words written on them, like the ones displayed at Yakitori and Ramen shops; lacquerware, in both black and red, traditional and modern; store signs and uniforms, like the ones worn by Sushi Chefs in the U.S.; to-go containers and refrigerated showcases; even wax food displays, some that even looked better than the actual food.
You name it; they’ll have it. It’s a restaurant supply wonderland.
I stumbled upon a knife store with a few hundred knives on display. Japanese knives, Western knives, short blades, long blades, small, and big, most of which I’d never seen.
Everything was laid out so beautifully in the display case.
As I was browsing, I wondered why there were so many different types of knives. Then, behind me, I overheard a conversation. A customer, a middle-aged man, was looking at a long, shiny, beautiful chef’s knife resembling a small Katana or Samurai sword. Beside him was the store owner, an older man in an apron, who gave him a wary look.
“Can I see this one and this one, and…this one, please?” the customer asked the store owner.
“Yes, sir,” said the owner. He opened the display case, took out three knives, and placed them on the table.
The customer looked at them for a minute, and the atmosphere got tense. He held each knife one by one, holding each up in the air to examine the blade, the handle, and the weight. He continued looking at the knives, stopped, and finally asked, “So, which one do you think is the best knife?”
“Well, they are all great knives.”
“Yes, I know they are all great. But what I’m asking is which I should buy? Which one do you recommend?”
“Let me see…” the owner said as he frowned. “Well, I can tell you this from my experience. Almost all professional chefs buy inexpensive knives because they use their knives every day. They sharpen them every day, too. They know that they will damage expensive knives, so that is why they buy cheap ones.”
The customer held his breath, stood still, and listened to the owner.
“Almost all the amateurs and semi-pro chefs end up buying expensive knives if you ask me,” the owner said.
The customer squinted but said nothing. The owner continued.
“I suppose amateurs want to own and collect knives instead of using them. I suppose I don’t mind whether they use the knives or not, as long as they buy from me,” the store owner said.
“But, if you are going to use them, I want you to get a knife that fits you the best.”
The store owner stopped, and silence followed. I left the store right after their conversation, so I have no idea which knife he wound up buying. I’m guessing he bought a more expensive, nicer-looking knife because clearly, he was not a professional chef.
I sensed he was more attracted to the quality of the steel and its price. It reminded me of the day I got my first inexpensive Yanagiba at Rock‘n Hollywood Sushi. Even after the store owner shared his opinion, I felt the customer thought, the higher the price of the knife, the better its quality was.
As I learned through my experience, as well as from other Sushi Chefs like Jin-san, the quality and the looks of a knife is secondary, if you intend to use it every day in the kitchen.
If you are considering purchasing a kitchen knife, here are my recommendations (the knife links are Amazon affiliate links).
1. It’s about how you sharpen it
As Jin-san said and I conquer: No matter how sharp the knife is, eventually, it will get dull, and you must sharpen it. So, if you want to buy an expensive knife, I recommend you learn to sharpen it, or buy an automatic knife sharpener. For my sushi class business, we use a $30 automatic knife sharpener purchased on Amazon. It works great and if you never used whetstones, that is what I highly recommend.
For my Sashimi knife, I use whetstones.
2. Hold the knife in your hand and see how it feels
There is no such thing as “The best (Sashimi) knife.”
However, there is the best knife for “you.”
Finding the best knife is like finding your life partner: If it feels right to you, then, that is the right partner for you.
So, I recommend holding the knife and see how it feels in your hand first. Feel the balance, weight, and definitely see how it feels when you cut ingredients. Hold as many knives as you can. Just like your going out on a date. Your first knife probably is not the one, or maybe it is. Who knows?
The process of finding “the right one” will take some time, and it’s likely that there is only “one” knife for you. You may also end up buying several knives before you reach the “right one.”
This is the one I use because it’s a nice-looking knife. It’s a lot lighter in weight compared to traditional Yanagi-ba. It’s made in Japan and sold by J.A. Henkel. The pattern comes from the fording technique, where they keep folding the steel to have over 100 layers. The Birchwood handle has a very nice feel and I like that.
We used this knife for our sashimi class. It’s a lot heavier than Birchwood slicer and a good fit for those who prefer weight. One of the reasons why Yanagiba is heavy is, I think, is it’s easier to slice sashimi because you can use the weight of the knife to slice fish, instead of using your force. Less force, the better tasting sashimi.
Founded in 1855, Tsukiji Masamoto started to supply sashimi and Japanese knives around Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. One of the most popular and used Sashimi knives in Japan and the world.
They do have Yanagi-ba ranging from $270 ~$2000 plus, so for a beginner, here are some of my recommendations.
You would want at least 270mm length. I find 240mm to be too short when making sashimi.
They say, “Masamoto to the East (of Osaka), and Aritsugi to the West (of Osaka).” There is always a rivalry (sort of) between Osaka and Tokyo, so, Tokyo chefs preferred Masamoto and Kansai chefs preferred Aritsugi.
They too are as popular as Masamoto and make exceptional Yanagi-ba.
These knives are very popular all over the world except Japan. The reason is very simple: They need less sharpening.