Talk to chefs about the knives they love and they’ll tell you about Japanese ones. Usually, they’re talking specifically about Korin. The New York store that launched a cult fandom for Japanese knives has a quintessentially American origin story: 40 years ago, a former junior high school teacher showed up in New York with only a backpack carrying an English-Japanese dictionary, some clothes, and a tape recorder. Saori Kawano started hawking knives. Some chefs with taste caught on, and in 1982 she founded Korin, the Tribeca knife retailer that introduced many chefs and cooking enthusiasts to the kind of renowned craftsmanship that Japanese knife-makers are known for. “We have more than 500 varieties displayed in the showroom,” Kawano says. “Why do we have so many varieties? Because everyone has different hands, different needs.” Here, she runs through the basics.
What distinguishes Japanese knives?
“Traditional Japanese knives are forged by hand from 100 percent virgin steel. Each knife has a specific purpose or usage. Nakiri and usuba are both vegetable knives, but nakiri is for home use. A deba knife is only for butchering fish. Until maybe 1945, until World War II, we didn’t eat much meat in Japan — just fish, seaweed, and vegetables. We are not a meat-eating culture. But the Japanese also eat Western food, so we also sell Western-style knives made in Japan.”
Most knives, or most Western knives at least, have a bevel on both sides. What about Japanese knives?
“The Japanese traditional knives, they are all one-sided. They’re very hard to use because with a single side you cannot go straight down. You need control over the knife. But it’s extremely sharp because the edge is very, very steep. There’s no resistance when you cut a fish fillet. It’s like a surgeon: If they cut the human body, the blade has to be super sharp. If it’s not sharp, it’s breaking the skin too much.”
Is a santoku knife interchangeable with a chef’s knife?
“Santoku knives are for home use. San means three and toku means benefits, so santoku is three benefits in one knife. It’s so you can cook vegetables, fish, and meat with one knife.”
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