Japanese knives are all the rage these days because of several reasons: they’re lighter, sharper, and markedly cooler-looking than their western counterparts.
Besides the Santoku, it is quite hard to figure out what other styles you should get because there are just too many to choose from.
There are time-honored J-knives, those which have been used for traditional dishes hundreds of years past. There are a lot of these because never ever would you see a local use a fish knife for dicing tomatoes and vice versa.
Some pieces are derived from Western types, invented after Commodore Matthew Perry’s black ships sailed into the Tokyo harbor.
Then there are hybrids of the past and the more recent history, and the East and the West.
So let’s start with two of the quite similar types: the Yo Deba and the Gyuto.
Deba Bocho: The Butcher Knife
Originating in Kansai (Osaka and Kyoto) region in the late 1600s to the early 1700s, this ‘short fat tooth kitchen worker’ (actual English translation) is used to cut fish, particularly getting rid of the head, fins, and tails, and slicing the fillets out.
Take note that this is not the one used for making sashimi portions. After the fillet has been prepped, locals shift to the Yanagiba to make those thin individual slices.
It is used in both homes and restaurants when it first came out.
Based on the English translation, this looks like a short, fat, and scarily sharp tooth when you are holding it down from the handle. Here are the specifics:
• The thick spine is straight three-quarters of the way from the spine. It then curves very slightly down to the tip.
• From the tang, the heel is quite high and faintly slanted towards the handle.
• The belly curves straight up to meet the spine, creating that sharp tip.
• With all that has been described, the blade is quite wide measuring an inch and a half or more.
• The length depends on what size of fish it is for.
The Different Types of Deba Knives
This wholly depends on what kind of fish you’re slicing. As cited above, the extremely meticulous Japanese have a particular tool for a particular ingredient.
This is the ‘true’ Deba, about 6 to 12 inches in length and is 5 to 9 mm thick at the spine.
Also known as Aji-Deba or Ajikiri, these are shorter tools measuring about 4 inches in length. This is specifically for smaller fish like the butterfly Aji, a type of mackerel, hence the nickname.
This is the thinner and lighter version of the Hon-Deba with a narrower blade. Ai means both so it’s a great tool since it can slice and fillet fish with soft bones.
Measuring 7 to 8 inches in length, this is used for crabs and lobsters. The bevel is ground on the left side for right-handed pieces.
Used specifically to fillet fish, this is slightly narrower but is just as long (6.5 to 13 inches) as the Hon-variety. This hybrid was made for fishermen so that they wouldn’t have to carry two blades (the Hon- and the Yanagiba) around.
The Yo-Deba (Vs the Wa-Deba)
The Yo and the Wa prefix on any Japanese knife refer to the type of handle that is attached to the blade.
• Yo refers to flat on the profile and narrow at the spine, triple-riveted, Western-style handles.
• Wa refers to the round or octagonal Japanese-style handles.
A Yo-Deba, essentially, is a traditional Japanese knife with a Western-style handle. Chances are, this is double-beveled as well.
Traditional, Single-Beveled Knives
During the Edo period and way before that, Japanese pieces are single beveled:
• Shinogi, the angled grind, is the part that cuts.
• Urasuki, the slightly concave surface at the back of the blade, is that which pushes the sliced part away from the uncut ingredient.
• The Uraoshi is a thickened rim surrounding the Urasuki, strengthening it and preventing it from breaking.
All the kinds mentioned above are single-beveled.
But because of the demand from the Western market, there are double-beveled ones nowadays. Usually, Yo-Debas are.
Gyuto: The Cow Blade
Remember when Commodore Perry sailed to Tokyo and ‘opened’ Japan to Western trade? That changed a whole lot in the local culture.
One of the biggest was food.
Before this, most locals ate fish and vegetables. After, they started eating meat – beef, particularly.
Gyu in Japanese means cow (as in Wagyu) and To means blade.
The Versatility of the Gyuto
This cow blade came about after Japanese craftsmen saw the Western cook’s or Chef’s knife.
They saw how versatile this piece was and wanted one for themselves.
Today, this can be used to slice, dice, and chop varied ingredients from meat, fish, poultry, fruits, and vegetables.
The Double-Beveled Blade
Since this was patterned after a Western piece, the designers have also decided to make this double-beveled.
Most knives refurbished with the equally-sharpened V-edge during the Meiji Period are based on single-beveled Edo pieces: Usuba is the basis of the Nakiri and Yanagiba was patterned after the Sujihiki.
As aforementioned, this is derived from the Chef’s knife so it looks very much like it:
• The spine is straight most of the way, curving ever so slightly down to the tip.
• It has a medium-length, 90-degree heel starting from a partial bolster.
• The belly gently curves up to meet the tip.
• The standard size is 7 to 13 inches long (9.5 inches is the best length for most) with a blade width of an inch or so.
The Meiji period prototype had the Yo handle – dark-colored wood that is triple-riveted to the tang.
But there are Wa handles available these days, especially for those who want their pieces to look authentic.
The Decline in the Use of the Traditional Deba
More and more locals found that using a double-beveled, all-rounder blade was much easier than getting different knives when preparing meals.
The Gyuto gradually rose in popularity and, when the Santoku came along after the Second World War, the Deba almost became a historical artifact.
It’s only recently when J-knives started to gain traction worldwide through cooking and travel shows that more and more people seeing its beauty and functionality.
Which Should You Get?
Gyutos, (for the nth time) very similar to a Chef’s knife, is a great tool to have since it’s an all-rounder.
Yo-Debas, even if the one you got is double-beveled, will require a bit of skill from you. And it still is task-specific.
So, we’ll be completely honest here: you should go for the piece which you can wield.
Last Updated on July 21, 2021 by Andy Wang