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Horses for courses: living with a (new) japanese knife

post #1 of 10
Thread Starter 

I've got a few questions about appropriate knives for appropriate tasks and was wondering if any of you could help me out?

I'm a keen amateur cook - I basically started cooking when I left home at 18 so that I could replicate the wonderful cooking of my mother and grandparents, and haven't stopped. My knives have basically revolved around a 190mm Victorinox chef's knife and an old 240mm french carbon Sabatier (exact make unknown) that was knocking around my family and was adopted by me! I also have a relatively low quality German chef's knife, about the same length as the Victorinox. I have a couple of waterstones, which I'm happy using, if not the most proficient with them.

Now, I've the fortune to be spending some weeks in Japan, I'm currently here and will be here for another couple of weeks. I've also had the fortune of spending some time in Kappabashi and have picked up a 210mm Misono 440 in Union Commerce. It looks lovely and I'm very excited about taking it home and putting it to work!

Spending time in Japan, and being able to watch japanese chefs at work has got me thinking... Basically, even my modest knife collection has made me aware of the importance of using the right knife for the right task. For example: the cheap german knife does all the grunt work with anything with bones; the Victorinox slices very well but is too flexy to deal with e.g. squashes, which requires a bigger knife and/or more stiffness.

So, I was wondering where the Misono fits into the grand scheme of things, because I'm aware it's a harder steel than either the victorinox, and certainly the carbon sab, and thus more prone to chipping? And, although it appears quite stiff, the blade is certainly quite thin. Also, I've been intriguied by watching japanese chefs using their debas and usubas (more of this later). In the japanese kitchen, the usage distinction is pretty clear: If veg and only slicing, use an usuba; If meat or bones, or veg and chopping/cleaving, or mincing, use a deba.

Of the three - the misono, the victorinox, the sab - I'd expect all of them to perform well most of the time. Is there any task the misono should not be used for, for chip prevention reasons? I'm thinking things like: meat which might have bones; chopping things like parsley, which I do by rolling, slicing, then turning the blade sideways and chopping with an up-down motion, a task for the sab; squashes, and chunkier tubers, like swede. Is there anything it might excel at, compared to say the sab, and vice versa?

(About the Deba and Usuba). While in Union Commerce, I was shown their own range of extremely reasonably priced carbon Deba and Usuba knifes... which has got me thinking, is it worth picking up certainly a deba and possibly an usuba? I mean, the deba looks like an extremely useful knife, I'm amazed by the range of tasks japanese chefs put it to use on, and it looks the perfect blade for a number of common tasks: dealing with boney things in all manner of ways; mincing; chopping. And then the Usuba, again, looks the daddy for any veggie slicing - I can imagine, seeing how they're used, and having seem the fineness of the blade close up, that it could outperform a gyuto in the right hands.

Are these two hard to use? What's the difference between the rounded and the square ended usuba, apart from aesthetics? Anyone used Union's own brand knives and how do they stack up? They're certainly far cheaper than any of the branded knives stocked in Union, and also compared to prices on JCK. Also, I'm used to the carbon sab, but do traditional japanese carbon knives need to be handled in a different way? I only ask because the knives I've seen used in restaurants here appear not to have as pronounced a patina as my sab has developed.

If I got a deba, I could quite happily throw out my budget german knife, so this is an added appeal!

Sorry, this has turned into a bit of a ramble, but I'd really appreciate any thoughts! It seems there's a lot of discussion about knives on here - which is super-useful, you guys really know your stuff! - but much less about actually suitability of certain knives for certain tasks. As I said, I'm got a little more time here and another trip down to Kappabashi could be very tempting... :-)

Thanks in advance,
post #2 of 10
The Victorinox is either a "Victorinox Forged" and is a German knife like all other high-end German knives; or it's a Forschner Rosewood or Fibrox, in which case it's a lightweight, stamped knife; and takes an edge better than more expensive Germans (it's Swiss, I knos), but is decidedly almost whippy feeling.

The Sab presumably started as 25 or 25,5cm. I don't believe any Sabatier manufacturer every made a 24cm knife, at least not intentionally. Any time you see a length which is a function of 30cm, it's probably a function of the Japanese "sun" unit of measurement.

You like short knives, don't you?

There are limits to how sharp you can get the German and the Victorinox/Forschner. The Sabatier can be made quite sharp. If you want to embark on a voyage of knife skill improvement, sharpening is the best place to start.

Congratulations. Use it in good health.

While you're there, get some better waterstones too.

Misono 440s are chippy. It's not so much a result of "hardness" per se, but more the result of lack of toughness.

"Stiff" and "thin" are relative terms. Your Misono is fairly stiff as gyutos in its price group go, but not compared to an ordinary European forged knife like your Sabatier. As Japanese knives go, it's not particularly thin.

Forschner/Victorinox sharpen pretty well for Euro-stainless, but they lose their edges very quckly too. The Sabatier can take a lot of sharpening and the edge will wear a long time, but the knife needs a lot of steeling between sharpenings. The better the "steel" (rod-hone) and the technique used along with it, the better the edge quality. Unfortnately, your Sab's edge sounds as though it may be somewhat compromised to begin with by your limitations as a sharpener.

I wouldn't expect the Misono to get much sharper than the Sabatier if the Sab were appropriate thinned and bevelled; but would expect it to need less steeling.

You don't want to slam the Misono into the board. So avoid tasks which force the knife into cutting through something very tough that isn't sitting square and flat -- things like squash roots, cutting through pineapple, cutting the knuckles off chicken legs, etc.

If you can't use your chef's knife to chop parsley, it isn't much of a chef's knife.

As I understand it, you chiffonade the parsley before chopping? Where did you learn that? Also, there's no need to turn the knife "sidewise," before chopping. There's a tendency to "walk" the knife through herbs while holding the tip with the off-hand. Try to avoid that as it tends to torque the edge when it's buried in the board; and that tends to chip it.

Cut the bones out of "meat which might have bones," so it's "meat which might not have bones," and you'll be OK. Don't use your Misono to cut through bones -- for instance, the feather bones or the chine when carving a rack of lamb. It wouldn't be my first choice for going through cartilage to trim a rack of spare ribs either.

As a hobby knives? Sure. To actually use? No. Each of these knives has a definite purposes which probably don't coincide with how you cook; and neither is easy to learn. If you want to be a better cook, they are each a waste of time. If you want to cook like a traditional Japanese cook, than they are both essential.

It's almost entirely about the first parts of preparing fish. Some boney. No mince. No chop.

"Right hands" are the operative words. Yours are not among them, unless you choose to make them so and are willing to put in the practice to do so. If you don't have excellent knife skills with a chef's knife, you're unlikely to develop them with a usuba.


The differences are mostly regional, but the kamagata usuba is a little better suited for point work.

Sorry, no. I haven't.


That's because they clean their knives sooner and more completely than you do yours. Yours can be restored quite easily if you care to do so.

If you're talking about a traditional, chisel edged deba -- then no way. If you're talking about a "V" edged yo-deba, then maybe. However, your German knife, other than being too short, is a lot tougher than most yo-debas and better suited to most yo-deba tasks at least as a westerner would undertake them, than a good yo-deba. You certainly don't need an alloy hardened to more than 60HrC to split chickens -- in fact it's something of a handicap. On the other hand, an edge which takes a lot of abuse and then can be restored on a steel is a wonderful thing.

A lot to chew on,
post #3 of 10
Thread Starter 
Wow, that's an exceptionally useful reply, thanks a lot!!!

It's a Fibrox, and yes, I know what you mean about whippy.

It measures roughly 10" depending where you start the tape, so, yes 25-25.5cm.

Short knives, lol, actually I like the sab the most! However, years of grad school have meant my knives have been acquired in haphazard fashion due to budgetary constraints :-)

Yes, I did have this in mind. I've seen good prices on Naniwa superstones, which seem to come highly recommended. I totally accept that my sharpening skills could do with improvement.

I guess I meant because of the tendency to bring the knife down hard during chopping.

Re parsely technique, my mother's family are from Cyprus. This means *lots* of parsley and the tendency for cooking to become a group activity :-) So, I learnt this as a kid and haven't really done anything different since then. Point taken, I'll happily review my technique.

Point completely taken, usuba and deba are off the agenda. Thanks for making it clear!

I should take some pics, I've seen chefs here happily mincing fish and chicken with deba. Plus smaller ones used on chunkier veg, like radish and yam. Anyway it's an irrelevancy, Japanese chefs are exceptionally skillful, they make everything look effortless, and I'm never going to get skills like that!!!

Out of curiosity, what makes a usuba so hard to learn to use? I can imagine a deba, because the techniques are so different and it's a good chunk of steel, but an usuba looks quite straightforward, in slicing mode at least. (E.g. no daikon!).

How do you mean restored exactly, and is this expensive? When I found it, it was quite discolored but still relatively sharp. Some steel wool later and it cleaned up a bit, plus I've been keeping it as sharp as I can on the stones. I guess the acid test will be a direct comparison with the Misono - if it's performance can be improved, then great, because I really enjoy using it. Indeed, it may even be worth considering getting a new one - the prices on the k-sabatier website look very good at the minute.

Thanks again,
post #4 of 10
Thread Starter 
Just answered one of my questions... I've just spotted a thread in Fred's Cutlery Forum entitled "Usuba Argh!". I think I now understand :-)
post #5 of 10
Yup, I'm the "usuba argh" guy.

Couple brief notes.

1. Usuba. Don't go there. Expensive, pain in the butt, and totally useless when paired with French/German knife forms. Brilliant knife for what it is, but to really master it will take several years during which you will essentially never be able to allow yourself to use any kind of chef's knife/gyuto.

2. Deba. BDL is, quite unusually, wrong for once. A deba is certainly used for mincing and chopping. BUT in order to do this, you'd need to buy a fairly big one -- at least 195mm and preferably more like 210. Then you have to back-bevel the heelmost third of the blade just a little bit so it can take the blows. Having done that, you're all set for hand-mincing and chopping. But unless you deal with whole fish on a fairly regular basis, this is a silly knife to buy just for the mincing.
post #6 of 10
I don't like debas for chopping. They're fine I suppose if you're chopping stuff randomly but they steer too much to use that way, IMO.
"Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit." - Aristotle
"Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit." - Aristotle
post #7 of 10
We may mean something different by "chopping." I mean essentially coarse mincing. I'm talking about a kind of chopping that honestly cannot be done with an usuba (assuming you don't want to totally screw up the edge).
post #8 of 10
Okay, that would work fine.
"Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit." - Aristotle
"Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit." - Aristotle
post #9 of 10
I stand corrected. The guy I learned pretty much everything I know about traditional Japanese knife technique (which isn't much) is an outstanding technician, but is just one guy. In his restaurant, most chopping prep work was done in the kitchen and/or during the day with chef's knives/gyutos. This included just about everything but fish and sush/sashimi mise. If there were mise chopping to be done at the bar in the evening he used a usuba, and a chef's during the day. Paranthetically, different day and evening knife sets for up-front cutting is not that unusual in Southern California sushi-ya. The only deba chopping I witnessed was negi-toro.

It seems I over-generalized.

post #10 of 10
Thread Starter 
I've been back from Japan a couple of weeks, and I thought I'd just provide a quick update. All the comments here were really useful.

First things first, I'm loving the Misono!!! It's an absolutely outstanding knife - glides through things, and is very light and nimble to handle. Nuff said!

Then, I made a return visit to Union Commerce and picked up some stones. I already had a Shapton 1000 at home - I also picked up a generic 400 grit and a Naniwa SuperStone 5000. I came down to my folks for Christmas and set to work on the 23rd going through the family's collection of knives (14 of them!). It's certainly made me a lot more confident sharpener and it's something I'll keep up with. I also attacked the sab with a scoth brite green pad, and that has now cleaned up quite nicely, plus I've made it super sharp. Happy!

Finally, I also picked up a 180mm deba. What swung it for me was chatting to a chef in one of the local restaurants I was going to regularly - a very friendly old boy, and he was keen to educate me in the ways of japanese cuisine, from hashi-technique to ochazuke rice slurping etiquette. He'd also spent some time in London, so a combination of his broken english and my broken japanese was sufficient to communicate! Anyway, I watched him filleting a number of bream with his deba, and asked him about it - "Deba OK" was his conclusion, and he showed me the basic filleting technique, and also that for mackerel (similar). I eat a lot of fish - I can justify the cost and learning curve.

So, the guy in Union Commerce sorted me out with a good value deba. So far I've filleted a bream and six mackerel. The bream was ok, the first two mackerel were terrible, but by the time I got to number 6, it was pretty good. I like it, it's a groovy knife, if only for its blend of heft and agility/sharpness! I'm looking forward to using it more.

Thanks again,
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