June 09, 2019
What do you think “Santoku” means? Why is it the best first knife in the kitchen? You’ll learn all about the unique knife invented in Japan.
Some translate “Santoku” as three virtues. It’s a direct translation of the Chinese characters “三徳”. But when it comes to kitchen knives, it’s wrong.
Actually, it means three uses. Many English articles say three Santoku knife uses are slicing, dicing, and mincing. And they say that’s why the knife is called Santoku. From a practical point of view, it may not be wrong.
But tracing the history in Japan, you’ll find something different. It gives you some tips on how to use kitchen knives, too.
The three are vegetables, fish, and meat. Why? Let’s dig into the history.
Before the WWⅡ, the main ingredients of daily Japanese dishes were vegetables. So the most popular kitchen knife in Japan was Nakiri knife. It is called Vegetable knife, too. It is specifically designed to cut vegetables.
After the WWⅡ, people started to eat more fish, meats, and processed foods. You can have some difficulties to cut those foodstuff with the Nakiri knife. For example, it’s more convenient to use a Deba knife to fillet fish. You can cut meats more easily with a Gyutou knife. The Nakiri knife became not the most convenient knife anymore.
But it was not practical for most home cooks to have several knives in a small kitchen. And it is a hassle to change knives so many times depending on ingredients. It would be better if you could cook various ingredients with only one kitchen knife.
So Japanese kitchen knife makers came to an idea of all purpose kitchen knife. It means a knife suitable for cooking vegetables, fish, and meats. Actually, these three are the real origin of the name Santoku, which means three uses.
Now you might be wondering what makes the difference. Let’s compare the Nakiri and Santoku shapes.
As you can see above, the Nakiri knives have a straight edge line. They are designed to have a longer contact line with your cutting surface. You can cut hearty vegetables by chopping down with a minimal rocking motion. It also makes long, thin rotary cutting possible (called “Katsura muki).
And their blade is very wide, not only at the heel, but for the whole length. That makes it easier to cut bulky crispy vegetables like lettuces and cabbages. The wider blade also helps to scoop up the food you have just cut from your cutting board.
But on the other hand, the Nakiri knives have some weak points when it comes to cut other foodstuff. Santoku was invented to reinforce them.
Now, let’s take a look at the Santoku knives. As you can see below, the tip is very sharp. You can imagine it is easier to cut into fish and meats.
Another difference is that the edge is more curved than the Nakiri on the tip side. This makes the contact line of your knife and the cutting board shorter. It’s almost like a point. It means you can concentrate more power on the cutting point with less effort. As you move your wrist with a rocking motion, the point makes a cutting line along with the edge curve. It also helps to cut relatively hard ingredients by pushing*.
*But, don’t chop hard stuff like bones, nutshells, and frozen foods. You can have a chip in the blade.
The heel side of the edge remains straight and wide. It allows you to cut vegetables with chopping motion. It makes the rotary cutting possible, too. You can scoop up the vegetables using this part, if you like.
This is how Santoku is designed to cut vegetables, fish, and meats with one knife. Santoku is a versatile kitchen knife**. It is intended to be a good first knife you have in your kitchen. And it is a must have for many cooks.
**Gyutou is another versatile kitchen knife. If you want to know the difference between Gyutou and Santoku, click the image below.
The Santoku knives are versatile. In other words, they are not specialized in anything. Paring knives are more suitable, if you want to decorate the fruit surface delicately. Deba knives are more suitable, if you want to cut fish with bone. Sashimi knives are more suitable, if you want to slice sashimi with a clean cut. Santoku can do these jobs, but not to the level of each specialized knife.
The good thing is that once you get a hang of the Santoku knife, you can use the skills with many other knives as well. It’s a base of various knives, as well as the basic cutting techniques.
Now you know the origin and purpose of the Santoku knives. It’s not difficult to imagine the size range and the bevel type, isn’t it?
The blade length is usually between 6.5 inches (165mm) and 7 inches (180mm). This is the right size to cut many different foodstuff in a small Japanese kitchen.
It’s one of the differences to another versatile kitchen knife, Gyuto. Gyuto typically ranges from 7 inches (180mm) to more than 9.5 inches (240mm).
The blade is double bevel. There’s a misunderstanding that Japanese kitchen knives should be single bevel. And because the Santoku is a Japanese knife, it should be single bevel?
No, no, no. I advice to avoid a single bevel Santoku, if you find any. Because single bevel knives are specialists for certain specific jobs. It contradicts the basic concept of the Santoku’s versatility.
For details of the bevel type, read my another blog “Profile of the Japanese kitchen knife blades”.
Santoku means three uses in Japanese. The three originally means vegetables, fish, and meats. They are designed to cut these three foodstuff with one knife without difficulties. Once you learn the skills to use the Santoku knife, you can use them with many other knives, too. It’s the best for your first knife in the kitchen.
Syosaku Japanese kitchen knives are handcrafted in Sakai Japan, where more than 90% of Japanese professional chef knives are produced. They are produced one at a time manually by highly skilled master artisans.
We have a range of Santoku knives. You can pick your favorite from the link below.
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