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We talk about ingredients and cooking methods for the myriad flavoursome Asian cuisines, all the time; as well as unique kitchenware that can ease your cooking. But probably a less talked about aspect of culinary is cutting. Knives are, of course, indispensable in any kitchen, and knowing and mastering their use pretty much allows you the freedom to prep any recipe, and even make fancier creations of your own. It also cuts down your cooking time, pun intended.
But how many knives do you need? The general rule of thumb is one for bone cuts, one for meats and fish, one for fruits and veggies. But whichever the knife, keeping them clean and sharp is most important. Learn how to hone and sharpen your knives. Always wash and dry, before and after use. Also, keep them in a knife-rack, instead of chucking them in your kitchen drawer with other utensils – the rattling friction whenever you open can wear down your knives faster over time.
When it comes to Asian knives, the Japanese are the original ‘designer’ blacksmiths and have many imitations used around the world. But the Chinese, too, have their own simple kitchen knife sets that have served household cooks and master chefs for generations. Here are some common types:
Probably the most versatile to have: instead of different knives for meat, fish and veggie, the Japanese Santoku knife is great for all three ingredient-types, just not made for bone cuts. Designed with hardened steel of samurai-sword tradition; it has a 13-20cm long blade, a tall heel, flat edge, and curves down at a near 60° angle at the point, but with a blunt or rounded tip. Some modern Santoku also comes with ‘scalloped’ sides for a uniform thickness that reduces friction when cutting. Comfortable and light, you can use it for slicing, chopping and dicing, in downward cut motions.
Similar to the Santoku, Gyuto is the Japanese equivalent of a western-style chef knife. 18-24cm long with a pointed tip, curved between tip and midsection, and a wide blade shape with a flat heel. It’s also multi-purpose for meat, fish and veggies, and can handle the typical rocking cut motion – as in moving the blade back-and-forth. Gyuto is pricier because it’s simpler to use, and considered a ‘slightly better’ version of Santoku among Japanese chefs.
The Japanese love for fish needs no repeating, so of course, they have specialized knives to handle it. Created during the Edo period, the Deba or ‘pointed carving knife’ is designed to behead and fillet fish, though also sometimes used to cut meat. Comes in various lengths, up to 30cm. Although not suited for large bones, the thickness combined with the angled heel, allows it to cut off fish-heads without damage; while the blade’s ‘body’ slices along the fish bones’ edge to separate the fillet. To use, apply pressure on the knife’s spine for clean and precise cuts.
Yanagiba or ‘willow blade’, is the ultimate sashimi knife. Long, thin and narrow, it’s best for boneless fish fillets and sushi toppings. Use not by ‘cutting down’ but ‘pulling’ the blade in single graceful slices.
Gudao is the Chinese cleaver for chopping bony beef, pork and poultry. Chinese-styled kitchen blades are usually broad and rectangular in shape, straight with a heavier tip. Gudao is thick and heavy with a slightly curved edge. Use in a rocking motion, it can cut through bone and connective tissue with ease.
Caidao or ‘vegetable blade’ is as its name implies, best for mincing herbs and cutting veggies, but also great for slicing meat into thin strips. Also shaped like the Gudao, but much thinner, shorter and lighter for easy handling.
Nakiri is the Japanese Caidao. Similarly used for mincing, dicing or slicing veggies into thin sheets. The pro-chef version is called Usuba. On a cellular level, the incredibly sharp and thin blade cuts your veggies clean without damaging them, which may cause discolouration and affect the flavour.