or: "How to not ruin the most expensive part of your meal"
You are at a fancy sushi restaurant. The kind with a special little stand for your chopsticks. There are no “Mexican Rolls” on the menu. They just threw someone out for pouring their own nihonshu. Gordon Ramsay is eating negitoro maki in the corner trying to remain incognito, but you can totally tell it’s him.
Across from where you’re sitting, there is an open sushi bar where you can see a brigade of stoic cooks calmly slicing sashimi just below the counter. You catch a glimpse of one of the cook’s knives - it’s long, narrow, and pointy. It has an octagonal wooden handle. He’s steadying his fish carefully with his left hand effortlessly gliding his beautiful knife in one gentle motion with his right. After each confident slice, the cook meticulously wipes the blade ensuring each slice is clean. It's poetic. “This guy knows what he’s about…” ...you think to yourself.
Ask any chef — sushi or otherwise — what their most important tool in their kit is. Almost all of them will say (after caffeine and alcohol) their favourite knife is a must-have staple in the kitchen. Arguably, the most important knife is the one you use to cut the most important (and expensive) food — fish and meat. Clean and concise cutting is paramount when it comes to precious proteins like beef tenderloin and bluefin tuna. Using a properly sharpened knife is an absolute necessity in order to ensure you’re not needlessly wasting the most costly food in your kitchen. Leaving precious fish flesh on the skin of the salmon you’re filleting every day adds up fast! Your food will also taste better if it’s cut gently, rather than being manhandled and sawed up. It’s true! Tearing your meat apart with a dull knife causes a great deal of moisture loss and oxidization, and drastically changes its texture. You can clearly see the difference between a sharp knife and a dull knife’s cutting performance if you look closely enough...
So — which meat slicer is right for you? You want to look for something long, thin, and pointy. A Gyuto can work OK, but a gyuto is pretty tall and taller knives have a lot of surface area that generates unwanted friction as it slices your delicate food. A petty might work better, but is probably not long enough for most jobs — unless you’re filleting a sardine. For these jobs, we recommend two shapes. First, most commonly is the…
The Sujihiki: The Ultimate Carving Knife
A Sujihiki (which translates to “Flesh Slicer”) is an easy knife to use. Like most knives sold in North America, they’re 'double bevel', meaning they're sharpened the same way on either side of the knife. A Sujihiki is excellent at cutting thin, straight slices of meat and fish. It’s needle-esque shape makes it ideal for easily getting under and cleaning away unwanted fat or connective tissue off of large cuts of meat like ribeye or pork loin, and its length (usually anywhere from 210mm to the slightly bonkers 360mm) also makes it very easy to glide through even the largest of cuts in one single stroke. If you’ve ever used a European or North American style carving knife, the Sujihiki will feel very familiar - albeit much thinner and sharper!
While the “suji” is an easy-peasy knife to wield and sharpen, you probably won’t find many at that high-end sushi restaurant we were hanging at with Gordon Ramsay. Most sushi chefs or Japanese fishmongers would feel much more comfortable with a…
Yanagiba, the Sashimi Slicer
A Yanagiba is a single bevel knife. That means it’s only ground and sharpened on one side. Typically, most “yanagi” are a fair bit heavier than a Sujihiki due to their thicker spine, but don’t let it fool you - the edge on a well made Yanagiba is thin. VERY thin. The idea is that the weight in the spine lets gravity take care of the downward force when slicing through delicate fish. This causes much less friction, thus less tearing. The back, or inside of the knife isn’t just flattened off — it’s actually slightly concave. This gives the knife a unique non-stick property that is absent in a sujihiki.
Most yanagibas (with a few exceptions) are made out of carbon steel. Carbon steel is preferred by many blacksmiths and cooks because it holds a fine edge exquisitely. Basically, it’s a heavier-yet-thinner-non-stick-super-duper-sharp knife that will glide through meats and fish like nobody’s business! The biggest thing to keep in mind is that this knife doesn’t really cut straight. They’re a “handed” knife, meaning they have a different construction for either right or left handed people. Not everyone can use the same yanagiba! Right handed yanagi tend to pull to the left, while left handed ones pull a bit to the right. This sensation takes a bit of getting used to, but the fruits of your labor are well worth it.
Sujihiki v.s. Yanagiba: Which do I Need?
Some of the best chefs in the world, especially those who specialize in meats and fish will swear by the Yanagiba. It’s an incredibly sharp and articulate tool when wielded with discipline and skill. If you’re a professional at a sushi restaurant, it’s likely you already have at least one in your kit. If you’re very serious about processing meats and fish, get a Yanagiba and learn how to use it. They’re AMAZING!
If you’re not interested in becoming the next Jiro, however, a Sujihiki might be the more reasonable choice. Sujihiki are easier to use, easier to sharpen, and are easier to cut straight with. If the majority of the work you’re doing involves carving turkey, prime rib, or ham, a Sujihiki is king.