The knife or bōchō, is the soul of the cook, so goes a Japanese adage. Nowhere is this ‘soul’ as central as in the preparation of sushi and sashimi, a preparation that is often a labor of love where the chef showcases a high level of artistry in the process and their sophistication with the different kinds of sushi and sashimi knives.
For the consummate sushi or sashimi chef, the knife used is almost an extension of their bodies. They breathe and live it. The knife must therefore be the right one for the job and it must be taken care of properly.
Sushi is more than just the preparation of fish. It includes everything from vegetables to the vinegar-infused rice.
Sashimi simply consists of very thin slices of raw seafood, mostly fish. In Japan, the sushi and sashimi preparation has been turned into something of a refined art, often involving the chef making very delicate and precise cuts.
The sushi chef is more than just a chef. He is also an entertainer at the sushi bar. The presentation and show are as important as the food itself. Knife skill is always an integral part of this culinary experience. The guests are not only watching the food being prepared; they are watching the different types of knives being used in the sushi or sashimi preparation as well as the chef’s skill with the knives.
Sushi and sashimi are steeped in centuries of Japanese culinary tradition and the preparation of these dishes has evolved into an elaborate and rich process, complete with specialised Japanese kitchen knives used in various ways during the preparation of these dishes.
There is a wide variety of traditional Japanese kitchen knives that are specially designed for use in sushi and sashimi preparation. These Japanese kitchen knives are so specialised that some are even unique to certain regions of Japan.
Sushi and Sashimi Preparation
To prepare sushi or sashimi, you will often need about four or five different types of Japanese kitchen knives which must be kept sharp at all times. Retaining the flavour is a key part of the preparation process and you will need razor-sharp slicers that can shear off thin pieces of the fish to maintain their flavor and bring out the energy of the food. That is what will keep your guests coming back for the magic.
There are different types of knives that sushi chefs use in the preparation of either sushi or sashimi. These include the following: -
- Yanagiba knife
- Gyuto Knife
- Santoku Knife
- Deba Knife
- Usuba Knife
- Nakiri knife
The knives used in the preparation of sushi and sashimi must be strong and razor sharp. You will also need a specialty knife to handle every task in the process. The knives must be well-maintained and will have to be sharpened frequently to maintain their ultra-sharp edge which is required for successful sushi and sashimi preparation.
Making a sushi roll is more than just slicing the fish. You have to cut the vegetables, fish, rice and even the sushi roll itself. The multiplicity of ingredients used in making the sushi roll requires multiple knives beyond just the yanagiba knife which looks somewhat like a Japanese sword. Sushi knives are often versatile so you can use them on the different ingredients used in making the sushi roll. However, a sashimi knife will be strictly for slicing fish.
These knives have to be hard and tough so they are usually made from high-carbon steel. This kind of steel can achieve an extremely sharp edge, which is just the kind of quality you need for these unique dishes.
Both sushi and sashimi knives will be single-bevel or single-sided. There is a learning curve involved to the use of such knives. Sushi chefs will be highly skilled in utilising these knives to make those fine and delicate slices and cuts.
With the slicers being single-sided kitchen knives, the cutting edge is only on one side while the opposite side is flat to ensure the thin slices of fish don’t stick on the knife. Most sushi knives tend to be right-handed. While there are left-handed sushi knives, they are rare and are often custom-made.
The sushi and sashimi knives also have very unique handles. The handles traditionally have a D-shaped cross section which makes the knife comfortable to wield even over extended durations of usage.
In the making of sushi, only a yanagiba knife can give you the razor-thin, shiny and smooth slices of fish that connoisseurs associate with sushi. The yanagiba knife gives you the ultimate in precision but it also offers you other advantages, particularly with regards to the quality, freshness, texture and flavour of the slices.
The sword-like yanagiba knife is often the standard sushi and sashimi knife. It has a long and narrow blade with very acute edge angles that enable the chef to effortlessly slice through the fish and sushi rolls.
The long blade of the yanagiba knife allows you to slice the fish in a single drawing motion from the heel of the knife to its tip, a slicing motion that not only preserves the flavor and texture but also helps preserve the fish for longer. The knife is often single-beveled on its right side. The left-hand versions of the yanagiba are rare and cost a fortune.
The long and narrow profile is perfect for pulling the yanagiba and making sharp slices in one direction from the heel to the tip. Don’t push the yanagiba knife as it will ruin the surface and texture of your food.
The thinness and sharpness of the yanagiba knife results in very little cellular damage on the cut surface. This not only helps keep the ingredients fresh for longer but it also makes for good presentation. In sushi and sashimi preparation, the food presentation is everything.
The thinness of the yanagiba also enables you to pull the blade effortlessly without applying force. The highest quality yanagiba knives will have a depression on their flat side which is a non-stick property and prevents thin slices of fish from sticking on the blade.
The yanagiba knives have lengths ranging from 8 to 12 inches. The size that you go for will be a matter of personal preference and how comfortable the knife feels in your hand. Most chefs find the longer yanagiba knives difficult to use.
The yanagiba comes in handy in slicing boneless fish during the sushi and sashimi preparation. Since you will be working with whole fish, you will have to hack through bones for which you will need the deba knife.
The Japanese deba is known as Hon-deba that literally translates to “true deba”. In Japan, the deba knives have traditionally been used in cleaning and filleting whole fish. It is a knife that packs significant weight to enable the chef to chop or hack through the bones thanks to its sturdy heel section. You will use the deba knife mostly on the small to medium-sized fish.
Deba knives are small, strong and wide and look like something of a cross between the gyuto and the meat cleaver. It is a single-bevel (single-sided) kitchen knife and has an obtuse angle on its heel that makes it suited for the heavy-duty fish cutting tasks such as cutting off the heads of fish. The rest of the deba knife blade can be used for filleting and to cut bones in fish.
The most common usage for the deba knife is hacking off the fish head. With the right technique, you can also use these knives to split open or cut off the claws and legs from crabs. In spite of its robust heel, don’t use it to chop through large bones. Use the blade carefully without putting it through sideways forces to prevent it from cracking or chipping.
The deba knife has been designed for use on whole fish and will be most effective when you distribute its cutting action through its spine.
As a sushi knife, the deba isn’t necessary for a home sushi chef but it is part of the sushi knife set for professional chefs. Even for home chefs, having a deba knife in your collection will make things a lot easier for you. Generally, though, the deba knives are mostly used by professional sushi chefs that spend a great deal of their time working on the whole fish for sushi.
At home, the fish mostly comes in blocks so there isn’t a need to hack off the heads or fillet the fish. In sushi restaurants, however, the fish comes whole direct from the fish markets, hence the need to cut off the head and fillet the fish.
In the absence of the deba knife, you can also use the standard gyuto knife to work on your fish for sushi or sashimi.
The usuba is a vegetable knife and one that is more commonly used in fine peeling or for making very fine and delicate cuts.
Usuba knives are best used for cutting fruits and vegetables that are to be served raw. They are thin with extremely sharp blades that will glide through the vegetables to give cut surfaces with very minimal cellular damage. An usuba cut not only preserves the flavour but also ensures the cut surfaces stay fresh for longer. Ingredients cut with an usuba knife will not be prone to discolouration or loss of flavor from the oxidation.
The usuba blade has a versatile midsection that you can use to thinly slice your vegetables. You can also use this part to do the specialised ‘katsuramaki’ or rotary peeling technique.
The usuba blade is relatively tall and also long, so it can handle the larger ingredients like cabbages.
However, this vegetable knife isn’t suited for the tougher skinned veggies like squash or eggplants as these will likely damage the blades.
The tall blades of the usuba also come in handy when you use the knuckles of your helping hand to direct the blade during the cutting. This allows you to cut vegetables with a consistent thickness.
Usuba knives are relatively short with blade lengths ranging from 180mm to 210m.
This is a single-bevel kitchen knife so if you are not familiar with the single-sided or handed kitchen knives, you can go for the nakiri which has a similar shape. However, the nakiri won’t give you the fine slices of vegetables that you would get with the usuba during your sushi preparation.
The traditional usuba knives generally have a small depression on the flat (non-beveled) side of the kitchen knife. This adds to its functionality as it allows you to slice very thin pieces of your vegetables than would be possible with a double-bevel kitchen knife. As with all single-sided Japanese kitchen knives, you will need a higher level of skill to properly use the single-sided usuba sushi knives.
There are different kinds of usuba knives that you can use on sushi. Understanding the usuba range of sushi knives can help you figure out the precise tool to use on your next sushi or sashimi preparation.
Due to the difficulty and delicacy in use, the usuba knives are often reserved for the professional Japanese chefs.
One of the most common variants of usuba knives used in sushi or sashimi and other general delicate cutting tasks on vegetables is the standard usuba knife. It is easily recognizable by its square edge. It is often associated with Tokyo and the greater Kanto region that encompasses the city and seven other prefectures.
There are also the Kamagata usuba knives which are more widely associated with Japan’s Osaka region. In the Kamagata usuba, the knife’s spine gradually drops towards the edge of the knife’s tip. You can use the tip of the Kamagata usuba to make those fine and intricate designs and cuts on your vegetables during your sushi preparation.
In the sushi preparation, you will use either of the usuba knives to chop vegetables and make those ultra-thin sheets of vegetables for use in your Katsuramuki.
Gyuto and Santoku Knives
Both the gyuto and santoku are all-purpose kitchen knives and can be used to slice, chop or dice a large variety of ingredients during sushi preparation. You can use these two multipurpose kitchen knives on the different ingredients used in making your sashimi or sushi rolls. The important thing is that the knives must be extremely sharp for the reasons previously mentioned.
These two Western-style Japanese all-purpose knives can suffice in making your sushi and sashimi, but they must be very sharp. However, if you are yearning for the authentic sushi-making experience, then you will need true sushi knives such as the yanagiba, usuba and deba knives.
For those fine vegetable cuts required of sushi rolls, you will mostly need an usuba knife. The nakiri is a western-style double-bevel vegetable knife with a rectangular profile. It is tall with a thin blade and is better suited for home use than for professional use in a sushi kitchen. You can use the nakiri knife to quickly chop, slice and mince both your fruits and vegetables.
The nakiri knife is fairly easy to master and you can easily use it to make straight cuts in home use.
For making sushi, we would generally recommend the usuba knife which allows you to make the finest of slices.
Knowing the clear difference between the nakiri and the usuba can help you pick the knife that will best serve your needs, depending on the type of use.Ultimately, the choice of sushi and sashimi knives often boils down to a chef’s personal preferences. Some chefs will go with the double-bevel Western-style all-purpose kitchen knives. Yet, for some professional sushi and sashimi chefs, the preparation process is always an integral part of the package. That often means going for the true sushi and sashimi specialty knives for each of the ingredients used in the preparation process. These knives are often high-maintenance and must be sharpened often to retain their razor-sharp edges.