Japanese Kitchen Knives: Essential Techniques and Recipes
by Hiromitsu Nozaki, Kate Klippensteen
Publisher: Kodansha, Country: JP
ISBN: 9784770030764, Year: 2009
Link to publisher’s page or site
This review is the personal opinion of the reviewer.

Overview

Japanese Kitchen Knives is a beautifully photographed guide to the three main knives (Usuba, Deba, Yanagiba) and the various cutting and filleting techniques specific to each knife. Aimed towards those interested in advanced Japanese cuisine and admirers of a traditional Japanese art, the book is one-of-a-kind. However, some steps of the techniques may be too difficult to be constrained within the smallish photographs and even with the flawless photography, diagrams are still needed for clarity.

Full review

Structure of the book

Japanese Kitchen Knives has three chapters for each of the main knives: the Usuba, the Deba, and the Yanagiba. Each begins by describing the knife and its uses, but the bulk is made up of specific knife techniques. After some of the techniques there may be a recipe that demonstrates the use of the prepared ingredient. The final chapters include a gallery with variations of the three main knives and a few specialty knives, in-depth instructions on care and maintenance, a glossary, a purchasing guide, and a diagram of fish anatomy.

About the author

From the dust jacket flap:

Hirotsumi Nozaki was classically trained in several Japanese restaurants before becoming the executive chef of Tokuyama in 1980, and of Waketokuyama, in Tokyo in 1989. Known for his culinary skills and deep knowledge of food, he catered for the Japanese atheletes of the 2004 Olympics in Athens. He has published over forty cookbooks in Japanese, ranging from simple home cooking to textbooks for apprentices, traditional Japanese recipes, and scientific new approaches to Japanese cuisine.

Main review

Japanese Kitchen Knives begins simply enough: a foreword on why traditionally forged Japanese knives are so special and how they are made, proper cutting posture, knife anatomy, and knife control (proper handling). The first main chapter starts by describing the special features of the Usuba and how it relates to its specific cutting tasks. Then it’s on to the first lesson: Katsuramuki rotary peeling.

That’s right: the first lesson is rotary peeling. It’s that magnificent technique that turns a daikon radish or a cucumber into one long, continuous, nearly paper-thin sheet that can be rolled up like a scroll. By the way, it teaches the technique in essentially a single page with 4 images. Immediately the casual reader will realize that this is a book not just for those who wish to own and maintain a piece of art, but also how to use it for specialized Japanese cutting techniques, and not your day-to-day slicing, peeling, and dicing (the book assumes you are already skilled at such basics).

The book is able to describe such techniques in as detailed a manner as possible without having to resort to video. A book can only go so far in teaching these, but short of having a master chef at your side, the only way to put the book to its best use is to buy a pile of vegetables (or fish as the case may be) and get to work. The way the book documents the techniques is quite clear, with some exceptions.

The cutting techniques for vegetables (which is exclusively the realm of the Usuba) are well-photographed, with uncluttered pictures that are able to show the technique even if they are only 5cm x 4cm (2in x 1.88in). Sometimes there may be diagrams and arrows as aids, but they are kept to a minimum. The Usuba techniques are as follows: Kasturamuki rotary peeling, Ken needle cut, Sasagaki whittling for gobo burdock root, Chasen-giri tea-whisk cut for eggplant, Jabara-giri serpent’s belly cut for cucumber, and Kazari-giri decorative vegetable carving (simple flower shapes for firm vegetables).

The next chapter, The Deba, is where the instruction sometimes falls a little short. The first lesson is Mizuarai, the cleaning procedure. In one of the steps, the book instructs us to “remove the gills. The gills are attached at one point at the throat and another at the base of the skull. The gills are also connected to the esophagus.” The next few steps illustrate the systematic removal of the gills. However, there are far too many references to the internal organs of the fish without accompanying diagrams (the diagrams and arrows merely point to skeletal or external structures). The pictures aren’t much help, either: at one point in the process the author tries to give us a closer look of the gills, with the knife tip obscured from view. Even with very clear lighting, the knife tip is plunged into darkness. This problem presents itself again with the Tsubonuki gutting technique, which uses chopsticks to remove the gills and organs. It fails to clearly show what the chopsticks are wrapped around and how far into the body cavity they are reaching. This could have been solved by one or two more diagrams (perhaps an artist’s simplification of the current photograph with see-through views). Practice, however, does make perfect, and the reader can also refer to internet diagrams or their own dissection of a fish to aid them.

The Deba techniques are as follows: Mizuarai cleaning, dividing the head, Sanmai Oroshi three-piece filleting, Daimyo Oroshi straight filleting for small fish, Hiraki butterflying for fish to be cured (himono), Gomai Oroshi five-piece filleting for flatfish, and preparing crab.

The last main chapter is The Yanagiba, which mainly includes techniques for sashimi. It’s straightforward but requires a knowledge of the character of the raw fish (“This relatively thick cut is commonly used for softer, less fibrous fish”). The Yanagiba techniques are: skinning, Sogizukuri slicing for tough fish, Hirazukuri slicing for soft fish, Usuzukuri slicing for firm fish, Yaezukuri doubled cut for fish with tough skin, and Matsukasa-giri pine-cone cut, Kanoko-giri spotted-fawn cut, and Naruto-giri spiral cut for slippery seafood like squid.

The recipes are few and are mainly for illustrating how the prepared products are used (examples include deep-fried Hirame nuggets from the Gomai Oroshi and vinegared cucumber with chicken tenderloin from the Jabara-giri). The book is beautifully photographed (there are great shots from Sakai where the knives are forged, and pictures of specialty knives at work at the fish market and restaurant).

Who might enjoy/use this book most?

The fact that most cookbooks don’t work on the assumption that you will know any of these techniques (try to find one that instructs you to do Katsuramuki rotary peeling, or butterflying fish) makes it difficult for a casual reader to be able to implement these skills in their day-to-day cooking. Those interested in advanced Japanese cooking, admirers of traditionally forged Japanese knives, and those interested in creating sashimi at home will most benefit.

This is an original review for The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf.
Main rating: 4. Recommended – good
Visual appeal: Beautiful
Suitability as a gift: If the person is really interested
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