Of all the Japanese knives, the most popular is the Santoku.
It is so highly esteemed by professionals all over the world, many western cutlery companies have embraced it and started producing it as well.
The Bunka, Santoku’s sibling, is lesser-known except for connoisseurs.
But those who have tried this are awed by its interesting design.
So, what exactly is the difference between these two?
And which is the better buy?
A Brief History of Japanese Knife Making
Japan has a very long history of bladesmithing, dating back to the 4th century AD.
And even when sword carrying was forbidden when the samurai class was disbanded during the Meiji period and sword manufacture was banned post-WWII, the tradition of forging blades was never forgotten.
Instead, many skilled craftsmen turned to create kitchen knives.
Seki, a town in the prefecture of Gifu, is said to be the bladesmithing capital of Japan.
Many famous Japanese cutlers of the 18th and 19th centuries didn’t move elsewhere. Up to this day, their large offices and factories are still headquartered in this small town.
They have continued to create knives of incredibly high quality that people all over the world wanted to get their hands on them.
The Popularity of Santokus in the West
It was the famous TV chef Rachel Ray who made this Asian tool an overnight sensation.
When she said she’s totally in love with her Wusthof model, viewers wanted their own too. And it’s understandable.
The 5 to 7-inch Santoku is shorter than the usual Chef’s knife which measures 8 to 10 inches in length.
The end isn’t dangerously pointy because the straight spine curves down towards the only slightly curved belly.
Then there are the shallow indentations on the blade’s face which allow food to slide down to the board once sliced.
For many home cooks, this is a friendlier version.
And cutlery companies agree. Almost all popular brands have this in their lines:
- Victorinox Fibrox Pro 7-inch
- Mercer Culinary 7-inch
- Zwilling JA Henckel’s Twin Signature 7-inch
- Wusthof 8-inch
- Messermeister’s Meridan Elite
- Mac MSK 65 Hollow Edge 6.5-inch
- Shun Classic 7-inch
It’s All About The Three Virtues
Roughly translated, Santoku means the three virtues.
Some say these three refer to meat, fish, and vegetables. Others say it’s chopping, slicing, and dicing. Both fits.
It was designed as an alternative to the Nakiri, the thin veggie cleaver.
When the Japanese started to eat more meat and fish, they needed an all-rounder in the kitchen.
The rectangular shape of the veggie cleaver won’t work for this. And other kitchen blades were also too task-specific.
Craftsmen kept the straight spine of the Nakiri and the longer heel. From the spine, the end of the blade was curved down. From the heel, the belly arcs up creating a convex belly. The two intersects in a lowered tip.
It can chop, slice, and dice leafy vegetables as well as harder root crops.
But it was made even more versatile because it can be used on meat and fish as well.
Chefs have tested this on various items and many agree it can do the following tasks:
- Mince aromatics (onion, garlic, and ginger) and herbs
- Thinly peel the rind of citrus
- Peel the hard shell of the squash
- Dice onions, potatoes, etc.
- Julienne carrots and similar items
- Break down a whole chicken into several pieces
- Slice steak across the grain
- Prep fish (remove the head, cut into pieces, make filets)
Note: there is a specific tool for filleting fish in the Japanese line of knives but this can do a decent job
Holding and Using the Santoku
Grip the handle with your middle, ring, and pinky finger.
Your thumb and forefinger should act as a clasp on either side of the blade’s spine.
This is quite easy because Japanese-style handles are often compact and the spine to heel distance is quite wide.
Instead of lifting the knife from the board and cutting in an up-to-down motion, simply place the tip of the blade on the board and then rock the knife back and forth with your wrist.
The great thing about this particular tool is that you can use it to scoop the sliced pieces when transferring these to another container.
That’s quite hard to do with Western-style knives which have narrower blades.
The Lesser-Known But Just As Efficient Bunka
Let us now move on to Santoku’s flashier sibling, the Bunka.
The two are often compared because they almost look alike, except for the blade tip.
The former, as described above, has a gentler slope from the spine to the tip of the belly.
The latter has a more triangular tip. From the spine, it cuts down to an angle meeting the belly’s flatter tip.
This is possibly why many say it is the more stylish version.
Although it isn’t as popular in the West, this tool has been around longer.
The direct translation of the term is ‘culture’ because this is used for making traditional Japanese meals.
What Is This Tool For?
The Bunka is a cross between a Gyuto and a Santoku, with standard sizes ranging from 5 to 8 inches in length and 2 to 3 inches in width at its widest.
Since it shares the features of the two commonly-used Asian-style knives, it can work on the same items as well: cutting, chopping, dicing, slicing, and mincing vegetables, meat, fish, aromatics, and herbs.
The triangular end is not merely an aesthetic, either.
This is used for more precise cuts like juliennes and brunoise.
It is also great for trimming fat and sinew in meat.
Many seafood chefs also use the tip for scoring, that is probably why it is so popular among Australian cooks.
Holding and Using a Bunka
Just as you would any knife, loop your middle, ring, and pinky finger around the handle while clasping either side of the blade’s spine with your thumb and forefinger.
In contrast to the rocking motion you’d use with the Santoku, the Bunka is best for tap-chopping and push-slicing.
This doesn’t have the slight arc at the belly to the tip so it’s impossible to rock this back and forth.
Why Isn’t Bunka As Popular in the West?
To be honest, many are quite intimidated by the whole look and feel of this blade.
Remember that the Santoku was only accepted by many in the US because a relatable TV personality thought it’s a safe piece.
The Bunka, despite the many similarities it has with Rachel Ray’s favorite piece, is just too unapproachable.
But more and more people are warming up to it. After all, it’s just as versatile.
And some top cutlery brands (albeit most are still Japanese names) are offering these to their western audience as well.
- Miyabi 7-inch
- Shun Classic 6-inch
- Tojiro DP 6-inch
- Enso HD 7-inch
Take note that Miyabi is actually under Zwilling JA Henckels. This is the German company’s brand of authentic Japanese line of knives.
The Verdict: Get Just One or Go for Both?
Japanese knives are all the rage these days. And it isn’t just because people fear missing out on the fad.
These blades are so well-designed and made, it makes work in the kitchen a breeze.
As it has been said several times earlier, the two pieces in question are pretty much the same. Although the design varies – and that naturally affects the way it should be used on the board – they do the same tasks.
So it is all about which you prefer more: a showy piece that will look amazing on your wall’s magnetic knife strip or something which can be used even by your kids when they’re slicing an apple?
If you can afford both, go ahead and get the two.
Remember, owning a Japanese knife can make your chopping board chores faster and easier. Imagine if you’ve got two.
Last Updated on July 19, 2021 by Andy Wang
- A Brief History of Japanese Knife Making
- The Popularity of Santokus in the West
- It’s All About The Three Virtues
- Holding and Using the Santoku
- The Lesser-Known But Just As Efficient Bunka
- What Is This Tool For?
- Holding and Using a Bunka
- Why Isn’t Bunka As Popular in the West?
- The Verdict: Get Just One or Go for Both?