From a casual glance, some Japanese kitchen knives look so similar and have seemingly similar functions that it might be a daunting task telling one apart from the other. Such as is the case with the Nakiri and Usuba knives. Both the Nakiri and the Usuba knives are specialty Japanese vegetable knives but just how similar and different are they? Where should you use each of these knives? We will delve a little deeper into each of these two vegetable knives to help you make some sense of each of them.
Both the Nakiri and Usuba are vegetable knives. Both of them have rectangular shapes and they are about the same size. Chefs, particularly in the Western culinary world, might easily confuse these two Japanese blades that look somewhat like Chinese cleavers. Finally, both of these veggie knives have a straight blade edge. The similarities end there. As we shall see, the Nakiri and Usuba knives have very different qualities, build and are put into different vegetable cutting uses. However, there are areas where the functions of these two Japanese kitchen knives might overlap.
To understand the evolution of the Nakiri and Usuba, it is important to remember that in Japan, the vegetable is prepared to be eaten with chopsticks. As a result, the vegetable has to be sliced, diced or chopped a lot. Both of these knives help you make these preparations to a degree. You just need to figure out which one to use where.
About the Nakiri Knife
The Nakiri knife is a double-bevel kitchen knife; a knife edge that many Western chefs would be more familiar with. The blade is rectangular, tall and thin. In Japan, this vegetable knife is more commonly used by home cooks to quickly and more efficiently dice, slice, chop or mince their vegetables and fruits.
The Nakiri knife has a flat tip or simply, no tip at all. The design of the Nakiri knife means that it is exclusively used in a vertical mode to chop vegetables. There is no back-and-forth or pulling and pushing of the knife. You simply use it to chop, chop and chop.
Like any Japanese blade, the blade of the Nakiri knife is thin, sharp and extremely hard, often crafted from carbon steel. The weight of the blade allows you to effortlessly chop your vegetables without straining.
The most common length for Nakiri knives is usually 165mm.
The rectangular shape of the knife also makes chopping easier as it provides plenty of room to keep your knuckles safe from injury.
Nakiri knives are nice all-round kitchen knives but they aren’t suited for heavy-duty cutting work such as hacking up bones.
In many Western kitchens, it is increasingly being embraced by vegetarians.
Nakiri knives with the traditional lighter Japanese-style wooden handles have their balance point tilted towards the tip of the knife and are thus nimbler and more precise.
Usuba translates to “thin slice” in Japanese and this pretty much reveals what this vegetable knife is all about. While the Nakiri is more of a conventional Japanese-style vegetable knife, the Usuba is not only extremely thin but it is also a one-sided kitchen knife that is suited for making very fine vegetable slices. As a result, it is more commonly used as a sushi knife to make the ultra-thin slices of the veggies used in the sushi rolls.
You will need the Usuba knife to slice the vegetables that are to be served raw. The thin and ultra-sharp one-sided blade cuts the surfaces with very minimal cellular damage which not only helps preserve the flavor in the vegetables but also keeps the cut vegetables fresh for longer.
When you use the Usuba knife to slice your vegetables, the little cellular damage incurred during the cutting process helps prevent discoloration or an alteration in the flavour of the vegetable which may happen as a result of oxidation after cellular damage.
The Usuba isn’t just a flat vegetable knife. It features a versatile midsection that can be used for thinly slicing your vegetables and for doing any specialised ‘Katsuramuki’ or a rotary peeling action.
The Usuba is commonly used for doing those ultra-fine slices. It has a long and relatively tall blade that allows you to also use this vegetable knife on the larger ingredients like cabbages. However, you shouldn’t use the Usuba on the tougher skinned vegetables like you would a Nakiri knife as this will likely damage their thin and delicate blades.
Like the Nakiri, the tall blade of the Usuba also provides you with excellent knuckle clearance for your helping hand, reducing chances of injuries when you are doing those quick chops. This will also come in handy when you want to use the Usuba to cut your veggies with consistent thickness.
Because of its sharp slicing action and the fact that it inflicts minimal cellular damage on the vegetables, the Usuba is perfect for slicing veggies that are served raw.
However, unlike the double-bevel Nakiri, the Usuba is a single-bevel kitchen knife that requires a higher level of skill to use effectively. The Nakiri knife, on the other hand, can be used by just about anybody.
A Quick Summary of the Differences Between the Nakiri and Usuba Knives
- The Nakiri is a double-bevel kitchen knife while the Usuba is a single-bevel kitchen knife.
- Because it is a single-sided kitchen knife, sharpening an Usuba knife requires specialised skill compared to the double-bevel Nakiri that can be sharpened more easily.
- The Nakiri knife is a great volume processor for your vegetables while the Usuba knife is better suited for fine and decorative vegetable cutting work, particularly in the making of sushi.
- The Usuba knife is heavier than the Nakiri knife
- The Usuba knife is a ‘handed’ knife because it is single-sided while the Nakiri can be used by both right-handed and left-handed users. However, in spite of the ‘handedness’ of the Usuba knives, most of them are still right-handed. The left-handed Usuba knives are quite rare and often made on order and tend to be quite expensive.
- The Nakiri knife can be used on the tougher skinned vegetables such as eggplants and squash while the Usuba is not suited for use on the harder skinned vegetables.
- The Usuba has a sharper and more delicate blade than the Nakiri knife.
- Nakiri knives can have Western-style handles and the traditional Wa Japanese handles while Usuba knives exclusively feature Japanese handles.
Which One Should You Buy?
The above comparison is a clear guide on determining which of these two Japanese vegetable knives would suit you best. The Nakiri is more of an all-rounder and volume cutter that you use to chop your vegetables, including the tougher skinned vegetables. However, the Usuba is a more delicate Japanese vegetable knife for making those fine delicate cuts and decorative cutting work in your kitchen. If you are a home cook, you’d be better off with the Nakiri knife. However, if you are a professional sushi chef, then you will need the Usuba.
The Usuba is a beautiful and conspicuous knife that will certainly make an impression in your kitchen. However, before you buy an Usuba, it is important to consider how it’s made and recommended usage. For one, the Usuba isn’t easy to sharpen being a single-sided or single-bevel kitchen knife. For the same reason, it is also not easy to master.
Most Japanese trainee chefs generally begin by mastering the Usuba knife. If you are a non-professional user and aren’t too familiar with the single-bevel kitchen knives, then it is advisable to use the Usuba knife slowly and more deliberately. To use an Usuba knife confidently, you need several hours of practice with this delicate kitchen knife.