I was absolutely intimidated to write about knives (intimidated is putting it so very lightly).
And then I fell into the rich and fascinating culture surrounding Japanese knives.
In any kitchen, the chef’s knife is more vital and indispensable than any other item. You could guess a bit about the chef from the state of this one item. Is it sharp and well maintained? Are there scratches from countless sharpenings? Is it kept with an immaculate polish or is the evolution of patina building?
In Japanese culture, knives are considered sacred, that our soul goes into our knives once we start using them. Believed to be inhabited by a spirit, when an old knife breaks or is worn out beyond use it is placed in a hocho-zuka tomb to express appreciation for its years of service and pray for improved skills in the future.
This is what I hope Cedro to be – a thoughtful reverence of these pieces that connect the chef and the table. Finding the significance and meaning in the stories of tools and the vessels we use to nourish ourselves.
Traditional Japanese swordmakers were esteemed with almost a cult-like status - approaching their work with gravatas. Only individuals of impeccable morality and sincerity could become master swordsmiths. With the gig came fasting and ritual purification. Like priests with anvils - producing the best swords in the world.
These swordmakers knew how to make extremely hard steel that would hold a sharp edge by hammering layers of steel and welding them together. Reheating the metal and folding it in on itself only to be hammered thin over and over, creating thousands of ultra thin layers.
These same principles are evident in Japanese knives. When compared to their western counterparts, they are unquestionably lighter and sharper. While European chef’s knives are considered culinary workhorses, used for everything from tough to delicate, Japanese knives are counterintuitively delicate due to the hardness of the steel.
For most of history there was no “chef’s knife” – there were four traditional Japanese knives. Deba for fish butchery, nakiri and usuba for vegetables, and yanagi for slicing raw fish. Medieval Japan was practically pescatarian with a ban on meat dating back to 675 BC. In the 18th Century, Dutch culture sowed into the minds of the Japanese that eating meat is good for health. In 1872 Japanese diets took a strong swerve toward meat when emperor Meiji publicly ate meat for the first time, culturally allowing others to follow in his footsteps. Enter, the “chef’s knife” gyuto – meaning cow sword.
Modern gyuto knives are somewhat of a hybrid between a traditional Japanese nakiri and a Western chef’s knife – evolved to handle fish and meat as well as more delicate vegetables.
Swaying you toward the romance of Japanese-style knives and away from the Clydesdale of Western-style knives was not my intention when I set out on this journey, but the burly, thick, heavy Western knives have lost any allure they might once have had.
Adding another layer of consideration – the handle comes into play. Mareko Maumasi, a bladesmith specializing in custom foraged, multi thousand-dollar knives whose waitlist is three years long – says, “this is where you actually have the relationship.” With all of this new found mysticism around the connection between chef and knife, I’m hesitant to suggest the “right” knives for anyone. Choosing a Japanese chef’s knife, as I now understand it, is an intimately personal decision.
I will, however, highlight some of the Japanese companies creating these incredible works of art.
“Take one glance and it’s clear these knives are the result of care, attention and years of experience. Linger for longer and you’ll fall head-over-heels for their seductive charms. What’s more, you’ll know you’re buying something truly special. As every Masakage knife is individually crafted, no two are the same. Each knife is personally hand sharpened before it is wrapped, by Takayuki Shibata san, one of the best knife sharpeners in Japan. When you get hands-on with a Masakage knife, don’t be misled by the lightweight feel. They glide through food like it’s not there. Once you adjust to the feel you’ll be chopping and slicing like they do on telly. That’s if you can bear to tear off the unusual packaging, because every Masakage knife comes wrapped in a Japanese newspaper from the day it was made. One of the craftsmen Katsushige Anryu says, “Iron is alive; it can live or die depending on the blacksmith.”
“Swordsmith Teruyasu Fujiwara IV has named these knives Maboroshi no Meito, “Visionary Sword Celebrated in Victory” — a bold claim, but one that is deserved. People regularly gasp when they slice a tomato or potato with Fujiwara-san’s knives. The knives of Teruyasu Fujiwara are real darlings of Knifewear, partially because he forges the complete knife from start to finish. These blades of his are remarkable. The quality of the sharpness is nearly unparalleled and the edge retention blows my mind.”
“In Japan, the blade has long been more than just a tool; the way of the blade is a way of life. In Japanese, “Shun” (pronounced “shoon” and rhymes with “moon”) is the precise moment during the year when any particular food is at the peak of its perfection. Shun is when fruit is at its sweetest, when vegetables are perfectly ripe, perfectly fresh, and perfectly delicious. Shun is in harmony with the natural rhythms of the seasons. Shun Cutlery proudly takes its name from this Japanese culinary tradition of preparing and eating the very freshest food at the perfect “shun” moment. It is a tradition we live up to every day, making fine kitchen knives that are always at the peak of their perfection, too.”