It’s not often than one gets the opportunity to witness a true master in action practicing his craft. But on Sunday, I visited my friends at Cook’s Warehouse in Decatur to watch Forging Masters Tadashi Enami and Noboru Morinaga transform metal into knife blades worth coveting. Following the forging demonstration, Knife Assembling and Finishing Master Akimasa Oe showcased his skill at using a chisel and hammer to engrave knife blades for customers, both in Japanese characters and in English.
Once the knife blades have been honed and perfected after a process that includes successive stages of flattening, shaping, and sharpening, they are embedded in handles, then engraved and given the maker’s mark.
The Tradition of Swordmaking – For Today’s Kitchen
At Kikuichi Knives in the City of Sakai, Japan, 700 years of family tradition has carried on, with craftsmanship passing from father to son, generation to generation. Since the fifth century, knives from Sakai have been made of a combination of two distinct types of metal: hagane (hard steel) and jigane (soft iron).
Known for making Samurai swords, knives crafted by Kikuichi bear the distinguished mark of the chrysanthemum, the Imperial Seal of Japan. While the swords are national treasures, the knives they produce now are worthy of similar respect.
The Kikuichi knives on display at Cook’s Warehouse were representative of the 300 knives and scissors the company now makes for professional chefs and amateur cooks alike. I was intrigued to learn that Japanese blades, unlike those we use in America, are single ground only on one side of the blade, where American blades are ground on both sides in a “V” formation.
Traditional Japanese knife shapes differ from those that American cooks typically use. As Hiro explained to me, “Until the last 50 years, the Japanese diet did not include red meats. Knives were created to work with vegetables and seafood.” Now, for the American market, Kikuichi offers a hybrid option of traditional American knife blade shapes with Japanese handles.
Sharp, Sharp, Sharp
Mastery comes with a delicate touch – and a very sharp blade. So why is a sharp blade important? Sakuichi’s Hiro told me that a dull blade will cause jagged tears and bruises in meats, fish, and vegetables. This irregularity will not make a beautiful presentation. Especially for sushi, precision cuts make for visually stunning food.
In the publication “Sakai Forged Knives,” author Sohbi Iida writes, “Sashimi says it all: sashimi deftly sliced with a razor-sharp knife and sashimi cut with a dull knife are as different as ice cream freshly scooped and ice cream melting in a bowl.” Interestingly, each protein or vegetable may have a knife that has been specifically designed for it. Japanese chefs rely on this diversity and use specific tools like the hamo hone-kiri, a knife designed to make precision cuts in filleted pike conger, or a takobiki knife, crafted to cut octopus and other sashimi.
Onions, it seems, are misaligned in many kitchens. While cooks everywhere cry over their cutting boards as they dice, chop, and mince, Iida suggests that “the real culprit” of our spilled tears might, in fact, be the blade. He writes, “A dull blade ruptures the cells of the onion, releasing the irritants that make our eyes sting.” Very sharp blades, it seems, will minimize this effect and optimize a food’s flavor.
The Japanese Culinary Arts Network
This exceptional educational demonstration and taste treat was arranged as part of the September 2014 Japanese Culinary Arts Network (JCAN) Tour across the country. The tour included stops at the New York Official Residence of Ambassador Motohide Yoshikawa, Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Permanent Representative of Japan to the United Nations, Princeton, Hyde Park, Brooklyn, Decatur, Chicago, the Official Residence of Consul General of Japan in San Francisco Mr. Masao Watanabe, St. Helena, and San Mateo.
JCAN was founded in 2012 by Harry Rosenblum (The Brooklyn Kitchen) and Ikuyo Yanigasawa (Kikuichi Cutlery) to promote Japanese culinary technique, tools, and cuisine in the U.S. market through a network of specialty retailers.