Did you know?
Back in the 90s, only chefs and other professionals in high-end or specialty restaurants used Japanese-style knives.
Now, thanks to cooking competitions and similar shows on TV and on the Internet, more and more home cooks are using Japanese knives in their kitchens.
The most common is the Santoku.
What many don’t know is that this is derived from another Japanese knife called the Nakiri and its closest relative, the Usuba.
And here is a quick comparison table about these two types of knives.
|Best for||Home cooks||Professional chefs|
|Versatility||Great for a lot of slicing tasks||Limited to a few slicing tasks|
|Ease of Sharpening||Easy to hone and re-sharpen||Needs expert sharpening skills|
|Standard Sizing||6-7 inches in length, an inch or so at its widest||6.5 to 9.5 inches in length, 2.5 to 3.5 inches in width|
|Weight and Balance||Light and well-balanced||Slightly heavier, leans towards the blade|
|Type of Handles||Has Wa (round, octagonal) & Yo (western)||Commonly has Wa handles, very rarely with Yo|
|Availability||Very common, even with American and European brands||Only common with Japanese brands|
How Did the Santoku Become Immensely Popular?
It was in the mid to late 90s when cooking shows made several names famous: Bobby Flay, Emeril Lagasse, and Alton Brown were just a few.
In turn, these TV chefs also made certain recipes, ingredients, or tools popular. For example, many credit Rachel Ray for introducing the Santoku.
After she gushed about its ‘friendliness’ and exceptional function, many viewers wanted one too.
Soon, American and European cutlery companies started to include this knife in their product lines.
It is a Relatively New Piece
What many people don’t know is that this is not a traditional knife at all. In fact, it was only designed post-WWII.
At the time, locals were looking for a more versatile blade that can do a whole lot of jobs compared to the task-specific knives they used to have.
They already have the all-rounder Gyuto, designed in the 1900s and patterned after the Western-style Chef’s knife, but they wanted something that can chop, dice, and julienne vegetables like the cleaver-like Nakiri.
A Short Side Story About the Nakiri (And Its Transformation into the Santoku)
The Nakiri is a vegetable cleaver – rectangular in shape, slightly thick at the spine but tapers to an incredibly sharp edge.
The Gyuto was used more often to slice meat, poultry, and fish.
When the locals needed a multi-purpose tool, bladesmiths figured out a way to combine these two.
Designers then retained the straight spine and the height (from the spine to heel) of the Nakiri but cut the flat tip, creating a downward slope. They then got the arch of the Gyuto’s belly, meeting the sloping tip and creating a sheep’s foot.
The Very Many Uses of the Modern Japanese Blade
The name they gave it – Santoku – is translated as ‘three virtues’ because it can chop, slice, and dice vegetables, meat, and fish. Here are specific tasks it can do:
- 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
The Time-Honored Usuba (And the Genius of Japanese Kitchen Knives)
The Usuba is practically the same as the Nakiri. It is a rectangular-shaped blade, thick at the spine and tapered at the edge.
The difference is that the former is single-beveled while the latter is double-beveled.
Japanese knives are categorized into those two groups:
- Single bevels are ground at an angle on one side. The other is ever so slightly concaved. A whole lot of knives under this category are considered ‘modern’.
- Double bevels are ground at an angle on both sides, creating a V shape. All knives in this category are more ‘old-fashioned’, used when preparing traditional Japanese cuisine. These are also quite hard to use and are often wielded by experts.
Single-beveled pieces were created by the Japanese for two main reasons.
First, it makes amazingly intricate and perfect slices which is a must-have for their beautiful-looking dishes.
Second, it prevents food from sticking to the blade.
We won’t go into the specifics of this because it’s so complicated, it requires its specific article.
But remember when we described single bevels earlier – when one side is ground at an angle but the other is a little concaved? That concave part acts as an air pocket, pushing the blade away from the food and preventing it from sticking. Ingenious, isn’t it?
What Can This Blade Do?
The Usuba translates to thin (Usui) blade (ba or ha, derived from hamono which means edge tool). There are two main kinds of Usubas:
- Edo-usuba which has a flat tip, like the usual veggie cleavers
- Kamagata-usuba which has the rounded off or sheep’s foot tip, like the santoku
Both these types are used for these three main tasks:
- Push cutting
- Katsuramuki or slicing any round or cylindrical ingredient into one continuous thin sheet
- Sengiri or slicing that thin sheet into juliennes
A Comparative Summary
Based on what has been discussed earlier, here are some important points of differentiation between the Santoku and the Usuba. We have also added several other salient bits of information that you should know.
Which Should You Get?
Based on the summary above, it’s quite easy to choose between the two options.
The Santoku is not just versatile. It’s also pretty friendly (as in not intimidating and dangerous) and quite easy to use.
In comparison, the Usuba is a very task-specific blade. It also requires a bit of skill to use and a whole lot more to sharpen.
If you’re a home cook, go for the former.
To be honest, single-beveled Japanese tools are for the masters. Unless you’re confident enough to call yourself that, don’t waste your money on a piece that you can’t use.
Besides, a lot of knife sets offered these days already include this particular Japanese blade.
But if you want a nice-looking knife – something that will look great hanging on your wall magnet – go for a Nakiri instead of an Usuba.
It can do the same job as its sibling but it’s double-beveled so it’s way easier to use.
Last Updated on July 21, 2021 by Andy Wang
- How Did the Santoku Become Immensely Popular?
- The Time-Honored Usuba (And the Genius of Japanese Kitchen Knives)
- Which Should You Get?