Anyone who knows me will know I am a bit a kitchen klutz - hot or sharp objects and I do not mix well. Well, actually it's probably the opposite - we can't quite stay away from each other. I have had more close encounters with stoves, ovens, hot pans, boiling water, splattered oil, sharp scissors and forks plunging into my feet than I care to remember.
So hankering after a really sharp knife is probably not in my best interest in the long run. To date, my kitchen drawers have mainly been stocked with knives well past their prime - blunt instruments probably being the best option for a clumsy cutter who lives alone.
But I have spent many an evening envying beautifully sharp knives in the kitchens of friends and family. So when I booked my tickets to Japan last month, a knife made by a famous Japanese knife master shot to the very top of my shopping list. In fact, if it was the only thing I came back with, that sounded just fine to me!
Japanese knives are widely regarded to be among the best money can buy. With a long and proud tradition of metal working, knife smiths are seen as artists who take time and effort over their creations.
Most of the best knife makers in Japan trace their heritage back to samurai sword makers. With the fall of the shogunate in the late 19th century and the restoration of the Japanese empire, many samurais lost some of their privileges, which included carrying swords. As demand for swords fell, many master sword makers re-purposed their skills to the more domestic task of making knives.
Knife making in Japan is primarily made up of three steps - forging (hizukuri), when the metal is heated and hammered into shape, honing (hazuke or togi), when the blade gets sharpened on increasingly finer whetstones, and the hafting (ezuke), when the blade is attached to a haft, or a handle. Most knives are then marked with their maker's seal and can be engraved with the names and initials of the person buying them, making them real family heirlooms.
And this is exactly what I wanted - an engraved Japanese chef's knife! As I was heading to Kyoto, there was really just one place to go - Aritsugu Fujiwara. The family has been making knives for 18 generations, passing on the forging techniques preferred by the Imperial family since 1560.
The Aritsugu shop is located in Kyoto's famous Nishiki market - a must visit for anyone keen on discovering the joys of a Japanese food market. Walking through Nishiki market on New Year's Eve as the city shopped for one of its biggest festivals was definitely an experience! But I was on a mission and a few thousand Kyotoites finishing their last-minute festive shop didn't scare me!
Picking a knife at Aritsugu can be a little intimidating, there are literally hundreds on display - specialist knives for scaling fish, dicing daikon, de-boning chicken, filleting fish, slicing sushi... the list goes on. One thing to remember when buying traditional Japanese knives is that most of them are sharpened on only one side of the blade and you need to specify if you are left or right handed. Single blade knives can take getting used to and the more common double edged knives are also available and this is what I ended up buying.
The knives can also cut a pretty deep hole in your pocket so anyone who plans on getting an entire set better take along a great big wad of yen. I decided to follow Anthony Bourdain's maxim of "all anyone really needs is a good chef's knife" and focused on getting one that I liked.
Another factor to remember is that most Japanese tend to buy carbon steel knives - which are incredibly strong and sharp but also require a great deal of daily care, cleaning and regular sharpening to avoid rust. The other option (which is also slightly kinder on the wallet) is to buy a knife with a carbon steel core and a stainless steel coating with just the carbon blade edge exposed, and this is what seemed like the most practical option for me.
After selecting a knife with a traditional wooden handle, I got to the really exciting part - watching the knife maker sharpen the blade and then engrave it with my name. Needless to say I was pretty pleased with the end result!
Now it's time to put it to the test!
Any one else keen on Japanese knives? I'd be interested to hear how they have fared in your kitchens over the years.
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