Japanese kitchen knives have a worldwide reputation for excellent quality and artistic beauty enjoyed by women and men. The trouble is, there’s so much mythology and romance surrounding them, not to mention a bewilderingly wide range of prices and types, that it can be difficult to make a choice. When it comes to selecting a perfect Japanese knife for a woman, the truth is, there is no such thing as a Japanese type of knife for a woman. The beauty of these knives is the fact that they can be used by everyone. What determines which type of knife is good for you is the size of your hands and tasks you want to perform with such knife.
Naturally, women have smaller than men hands so a 6’5 ft cook will aim for a knife handle with wider grip and larger blade length than a 5’4 ft woman would do.
I’m 5’7 ft (Camilla here, hi :)) so I will share with you what works for me. As a guidance, I’ve created you a real-life photos of me holding different types of knives. You will be able to see how each type of knife fits in.
Ancient Japan knew it well
The beauty of us humans is that we come in all different shapes and sizes. Diversity is what makes this life interesting. It was celebrated and highlighted on every sphere of life in ancient Japan too, at home and on the battlefield.
Long before the Western world began to view Samurai warriors as inherently male, there existed an impressive group of Female Samurai. They were every bit as powerful, smart and deadly as their male counterparts. They were known as the Onna- Bugeisha (meaning female martial artist). They were trained in self-defense and offensive manoeuvres the same way as men. They were even trained to use a weapon specifically designed for women – Naginata, to allow them better balance given their smaller stature. For years, they fought alongside the male samurai, being held to the same standards, and expected to perform the same duties. One of the first female samurai warriors was Empress Jingu. Today, women and men around the world can get their hands on new version of onna-bugeisha’s katanas – that is a kitchen Japanese knife. Made with the same ancient technique, Japanese knives are carrying the legacy of famous blacksmiths.
Ok, enough of the history. Let’s get you some concrete tips.
Small is beautiful
What you’re really looking for is a knife which is easy to manoeuvre, which you don’t need to apply a lot of force to complete your tasks. A good knife should make the process of food preparation and cooking more enjoyable. That’s why, if you’re a woman or a person with smaller hands, you should look into a petty / utility type of knife. It is a smaller general-purpose tools that’s used for a variety of kitchen tasks – and it’s so versatile, it’s one that can quickly become your go-to choice for daily tasks. Deft, with a thin, agile blade, their compact size makes them wonderfully nimble and easy to manoeuvre. This agility makes them useful for carving, mincing, peeling, and slicing a variety of fruits, herbs, and vegetables and for delicate tasks such as creating an intricate garnish.
Yet, in building a core knife arsenal, the value of a petty knife is often overlooked. They’re kind of the awkward teenager of blades, not as small as those baby paring knives (65-90mm) and not as large as a grown-up chef’s knife. These knives really excel when working with small vegetables and softer texture ingredients such as chicken fillets, but they’re too fragile for deboning chicken legs. You want a relatively straight blade with a thin tip, but that has the ability to rock back and forth a bit for dicing and mincing veggies like shallots and garlic. Petty is usually between 150mm and 170mm long. I prefer 150mm blade with a 120mm handle as I can easily manoeuvre with such knife.
The knife maintenance
The main difference between buying cheap knives and those who require a bigger investment is the time which they can serve you. Vast majority of the Japanese handmade knives are very high quality. Japanese masters train for many decades under the supervision of older blacksmiths before they are even able to make their own knives. Getting a Japanese knife guarantees that you’re buying yourself a robust, quality tool and a piece of art on its own.
When deciding upon getting a new knife, the first thing you should ask yourself is how much time and effort you’re willing to put into taking care of your knives. The answer to this will dictate the knife material you should choose. Many Japanese knives are traditionally made with a type of carbon steel called hagane, which comes in various gradations. However, hagane is a relatively soft steel that’s meant to be maintained regularly; professional chefs sharpen and take care of their knives every day, but a hagane blade that’s not maintained regularly will dull, chip and rust. Not ideal for a home cooks.
Stainless steel, on the other hand, is very easy to maintain; it doesn’t rust and holds a sharp edge for long time. Once a stainless steel blade loses its edge, it takes some effort and skill to sharpen properly, so many people prefer to have them professionally sharpened or, like me – delegate the sharpening task to a partner 🙂
The other major consideration when looking at knives is whether to choose a single- or double-bevel blade. For home use, a double-bevel blade is usually easier to handle, and they aren’t too difficult to sharpen with a little practice. If you are left-handed, keep in mind that regular single-bevel knives are meant for use in your right hand only — left-handed single bevels are rare and expensive. I’m left handed and I find a double bevel knife good enough. I’ve tried some single-bevel knives but for a home cook like myself, I don’t really see the need for getting into so much customisation.
Building a core knife arsenal
If you want a sturdy knife that can do everything from breaking down meat or fish to chopping vegetables, go for a chef’s knife, which is called a Gyūtō (cow knife) – ideally with a shorter blade of 190mm to 210mm. When we were designing our Signature kitchen knife set I was testing many different knife sizes and steels. I’m 5’7 ft and I find 210mm Gyuto (chef’s knife) with a 130mm octagonal handle to be ideal for me.
If you prefer even lighter, thinner knife than a Gyuto, a santoku is a great choice. Santoku can be used for meat, fish and vegetables.
My third favourite knife is the Nakiri or vegetable-cutting knife. Characterised by its straight blade edge and squared off tips, the Nakiri knife allows you to cut all the way through to the cutting board without having to use a horizontal push or pull. Thin and light in weight, the Nakiri knife is ideal for prepping all types of vegetables.
Other knives include the deba, a single-bevel pointed knife that’s used for breaking down fish and meat, and the long, thin, elegant yanagiba with which one can delicately slice fish for sashimi and sushi.
What else do you need?
There are several important aspects to knife maintenance: storage, washing, honing and sharpening, as well as using the right chopping boards. Caring for your knife is absolutely vital if you want it to serve you for years, or even generations to come.
Using a wooden or rich-lite chopping board is preferable to plastic. Plastic can tolerate harsh chemical cleaning by bleach and will not retain such chemicals within to later contaminate food. However, the softer nature of plastic is susceptible to scoring by knives. Apart from the unaesthetic look, cuts and grooves can harbour bacteria, even following thorough cleaning. Knives are also prone to chipping and blunting, as the plastic does not absorb the impact of the blade as seen with end grain wood boards. Plastic boards can be unstable and are therefore prone to slipping increasing the risk of hand injuries. Let’s be honest, after a few weeks they don’t look neat anymore and need to be replaced more frequently than wooden boards. Having said all the nasty things about plastic, I must highlight its advantages. Personally, I prefer wooden boards and my all time favourite material is aomori hiba wood.
They have been used to build shines, temples and traditional reception rooms because they are known for their superior quality and sturdiness.
Interesting fact is that Aomori Hiba includes more of Hinokitiol that is an ingredient kills bacteria than any other woods, which contains anti-bacterial and anti-mold properties. In addition to the effect, hinokitiol has the odour eliminating any ammonia smells. That is why cutting boards made of Aomori Hiba have been getting good reputations for a long time and they are widely present in Japanese homes and used by professional chefs used as superior quality boards.
Eventually you’ll have to sharpen. A well looked after knife requires sharpening a couple of times a year, with the best method being a whetstone. Sharpening stone is by far the best knife-related investment you can make. It’s not that hard to learn how to properly sharpen your blades. In my house we use a #1000 or #1500 whetstone grit for sharpening, and a #6000 for polishing the blade — this combination works for all my knives. You can get two separate stones or a combo one – one side will have the lower grit stone and the other – the higher one. Online sharpening how-to videos are a place to start — or better yet, get someone to show you how.
Storing a knife is very easy – don’t keep them in a draw. That’s the biggest mistake people make, even some chefs. Frankly, it’s second biggest crime you can commit to your knives (slow death of damaging the edges). The biggest crime is of course putting them in a dishwasher. This amounts to “attacking” the knife, as the salt, hot air and water will ruin the edge, if not the side of the blade; it won’t come out as sharp as it went in. (Hand wash as soon as you’ve finished using it and wipe it dry).
If you’re looking for a smart way of storing your knives, rather than expose your knife to a severe bashing in a draw, keep it in a knife block, a bristle block or – my favourite method – on a knife magnet – either a stand or a wall-mounted rack.
Different or not?
There is no such thing as the best Japanese kitchen knife for a woman. It’s all about the size of your hands and tasks you want to perform with such knife. As women have smaller than man hands, small, deft, and agile knives such as petty/utility ones will quickly become the first tool you grab onto for daily cutting tasks. Lightweight and nimble, they can be comfortably be used for extended periods of hand-held work without fatigue. And they’re great to quickly chop, mince, or chop fruit, herbs, veggies and other foods when you don’t want to pull out your chef’s knife. Once you’re in love with Japanese knives (I promise you, you’ll fall in quickly, like myself) you will want to compliment your core knife arsenal with gyuto (chef’s knife) and nakiri (veggie knife).
Good luck with your knife hunt!