Most people’s first knife is either a santoku or a gyuto, some adventurous souls even grab a nakiri first. That first knife is usually something that can be used to cut up most of your veggies and can handle simple meat-based tasks. The need for a second knife comes when you are faced with a mountain of cherry tomatoes that need halving or a bag of green beans that need to be topped and tailed. A big knife can make these tasks challenging, so it’s time to look for something more dainty.
If you’ve recently decided that you need something smaller, your choice is between the recognizable petty knife and the mysterious ko-bunka. What’s the difference? Allow me to explain.
Origins of the Shapes
The Japanese term petty actually comes from the French word for small, petite, which is how French chefs described their smaller knives when Japan looked to them to learn about western knife shapes. Petty knives cover a wide range of uses, from peeling and paring vegetables in your hand, to trimming a roast before cooking. Shorter ones (75mm to 90mm) are often called paring knives and the longer ones (120mm to 150mm) sometimes get called utility knives.
A ko-bunka can be thought of as a baby santoku with attitude. It’s all right there in the name. Ko means small and a bunka is the name of a knife shape very similar to a santoku but with the end cut down to a pointy tip. There’s a bit of variance between knife makers on what a ko-bunka looks like; the ones from Masakage are around 130mm in length and about as tall as a larger petty, whereas those from Masashi-san come in at 135mm long and are a fair bit taller. Nigara Hamono even makes them as small as 120mm as long as 150mm! I personally find a ko-bunka better for smaller chopping jobs like that mountain of cherry tomatoes we mentioned earlier. Ko-bunkas make a great gift for people who always reach for a paring knife, no matter how big the task. The slightly taller blade allows them to use proper knife skills without putting a big scary knife in their hand.
Which one is for me?
I’m a firm believer that you should get the knife that makes you feel like a rock star; if that funky bad-ass tip on the ko-bunka inspires you to cook, go for it. But, if you prefer the traditional look of a petty and find the simplicity more interesting, get that one. If looks didn’t matter, blacksmiths would all make the same knives. How boring would that be?
So why choose one over the other? For a moment we’ll ignore the aesthetics, and just focus on the function of the knife. Generally speaking, I find a 120mm or 135mm petty to be more versatile than a ko-bunka. They are usually more slender and can be used in the hand more easily. I prefer the thinner tip for precise jobs, like removing silverskin from a tenderloin. They are sort of tall enough to chop smaller veggies but I find myself hanging off of the edge of the cutting board so I don’t bang my knuckles when I chop. If you find yourself expecting to do more chopping and less butchery, that’s a solid reason to get a ko-bunka. At the end of the day they do function differently, so there’s no harm in having both!
Once you’ve settled into your camp of choice, here are some of my favourite ko-bunkas and petty knives:
Probably one of the sexiest knives I’ve ever laid my hands on. Yoshizawa-san forges these beauties out of SG2 stainless steel which holds an edge better than just about anything else. Maybe not the best choice for someone who chops like a jackhammer, but it will cut like a scalpel for a very long time.
The Seki Kanetsugu Zuiun are a real dark horse in the knife world, but don't sleep on them - they're incredibly sexy blades and they cut like a dream. Between the insanely sharp SG2 steel blade and the seven-sided ergonomic handle, you won't want to put this knife down.
I love the classic, rustic design of these blades and they cut incredibly well thanks to a core of high-carbon steel. Keep in mind that the edge of this knife is made using carbon steel, not stainless, so there’s a little more maintenance involved in owning this knife.
Ok! So, you’ve got your all-day every-day knife broken in. You’ve got your trusty sidekick picked out. What’s your next knife going to be?