Unknown to a lot, there are numerous kinds of Asian-style kitchen knives, each intended for a particular purpose.
Most people in the western world are familiar with the Santoku, thanks to TV personalities who laud its versatility.
But there is another all-rounder in the Japanese kitchen, which is acknowledged by connoisseurs as the equivalent of the multi-purpose Chef’s knife: the Gyuto.
It’s hard to talk about this incredible piece without discussing the history of Japanese knife crafting. And it all starts with its bladesmithing.
The Long Tradition of Metal Craft in Japan
Bladesmithing is etched deep in the Nippon culture.
The Age of the Samurai (mid-1400s to the end of the 1500s) saw the need for katanas. Bizen, Nara (now Yamato), Sanjo, and Seki were the hubs of metal craft in the whole archipelago.
When samurais were outlawed and their katanas prohibited, craftsmen turned to make smaller blades for cooking and other domestic tasks.
But the design of these pieces still had the overall look and feel of traditional swords.
More importantly, these were hard, durable, and incredibly sharp.
The Entry of Western Influences
When this far eastern country opened its harbors to foreigners, their traditional customs started to mingle with the western ways. This led to many cultural shifts.
The Gyuto is an offspring of that mix.
As aforementioned, most kitchen blades had specific jobs.
- The Nakiri is for chopping vegetables.
- The Usuba is for cutting and peeling vegetables.
- The Akjikiri is for (a specific kind of) fish.
- The Fuguhiki is for pufferfish (and this is understandable).
When local cooks saw that the foreigners were using just one kind of knife for a wide array of tasks, they had to have one as well.
The Cow Sword
Aside from the creation of the Japanese Chef’s knife, another change that happened was at the dining table.
Instead of just serving rice, vegetable, and fish for meals, the locals also included beef in the menu.
And because the new tool they created can hack large slabs of beef, they figured out what to call it.
The direct translation of the word Gyuto is ‘cow sword’.
Almost Like a Traditional Chef’s Knife
Japanese kitchen knives are often short and stout.
Nakiris and Usubas are 5 to 7 inches in length and 2 to 3 inches wide.
Debas are 4 to 6 inches long and 2 to 3 inches at their widest part.
Their slicers, often used for fish and other seafood, are the only ones that are long (nearly 10 inches or more) and narrow (a quarter of an inch or less).
Below are some similarities between the two:
Standard Chef’s knife is 8 to 10 inches long and an inch or so thick. Gyutos are the same.
This western piece has a flat spine that gently curves down and a slightly convex belly starting from a lengthy heel that meets to a point closer to the spine. The eastern imitation is the same.
The original tool is used by rocking the blade back and forth. The copy is the same. However, the flatter part near the heel can be used for the up-and-down chopping motion.
The handle is wider and flatter and is usually riveted to the tang. At times, these have a curve to them for a more comfortable grip.
What is a Wa Gyuto?
The ‘Wa’ in the terms simply refers to the handle of the knife which is in the traditional round or octagonal style.
The Gyuto or any Japanese knife for that matter with the western-style handle (as described above) are often tagged with the word ‘Yo’ in the beginning. This isn’t that common, though.
These round and octagonal handles were not just made to coincide with the clean and simple Nippon aesthetics.
These have an important function in the whole piece.
First, these aren’t riveted to the tang. It’s merely slipped on as snugly as possible. Unless you’re going to use this as a hammer for a nail, it’s not going to come off that easily.
Second, it’s not that heavy. The Asian-style tangs are tapered to the end. Since there is more weight near the blade, the center of balance is there as well.
Third, it’s more compact. Because your knuckles have more space in between the handle and the chopping board, you get to do the rocking motion better.
Finally, you can replace the handle easily. Carbon steel, when taken care of properly, can last you a lifetime. That isn’t the case with wooden handles. But with non-riveted tangs, this is possible.
The Distinction Between the (Wa or Yo) Gyuto and the Chef’s Knife
As stated above, the two are very much alike. Barring the handle and the construction of the tang, there are a few points in which these differ:
Knives from the West often have bolsters. This is the thick piece of metal that sits in between the blade and the handle.
Some have full bolsters which run from the spine down the heel and some just have partial ones which leave the heel exposed.
This has two main responsibilities.
First, it acts as a finger guard, protecting your hand from accidental nicks from the sharp edge.
Second, it adds weight to the piece and, consequently, brings balance.
Knives from Japan rarely have bolsters so most Gyutos – even those with the ‘Yo’ tag – also don’t. And on that rare occasion that you see one, it’s often partial.
The Type of Steel Used
This is another pronounced difference between the two.
Blades forged in the metalcraft hubs in the archipelago are high in Carbon.
These are very hard, can be thinned out into mere millimeters, and can stay sharp for a long time. It does have some weaknesses.
First, it is brittle. These tend to chip or crack instead of just bend.
Second, these may rust and will stain over time.
Western ones are made of stainless steel which contains iron, carbon, and a whole lot of chromium. It’s dubbed ‘stainless’ because it is resistant to corrosion and staining.
New metal alloys also contain other elements which add to several pleasing properties.
However, these tend to be heavier because they can’t be forged into thin slivers.
Overall Weight and Balance
Just with the steel used in construction, one can figure out the weight as well. And based on what was said above, Asian-style knives are lighter than its counterpart in the West.
The balance is a completely different thing. And this depends mostly on the bolster.
Because traditional Chef’s knife has a bolster, the balance is right in the middle.
Yo Gyutos with bolsters follow that. Yo and Wa Gyutos without bolsters will lean heavier towards the blade.
Notable Wa and Yo Gyutos
It’s hard to find German, French, or American brands that carry Gyutos. Most people are still more familiar with a Santoku than this knife type.
But in case you’re on the lookout, here are some brands you should go for:
- Mac Chef’s Series 8.5-inch (Yo)
- Shun Classic 7-inch (Wa)
- Misono UX10 – in five sizes (Yo with partial bolster)
- Global G-Series 7.8-inch (Yo, all metal)
- Miyabi SG2 Birchwood 7.8-inch (Wa)
Which Should You Get?
As explained, these two are practically the same. The only thing which separates the two is, technically, the ‘Wa’ or the round or octagonal handle.
If you are thinking of adding this to your block, the best way to figure out which works for you is by holding one in your hand.
Which feels good to you – the flatter, wider handle or the more compact round one? If you chance upon a Yo Gyuto with a bolster, is that heavier for you or does it feel more balanced?
You can answer all those questions by holding the piece. The one which feels good in your grip is the best option for you.
Last Updated on July 19, 2021 by Andy Wang