What are Sakai Knives?
Sakai Knives were developed in and around the Sakai area of Osaka. They are produced using a traditional manufacturing process based on the same techniques that were used to make Japanese swords (katana).
These knives, which are renowned for their excellent sharpness and beautiful handling, are the most highly prized by Japanese chefs. With the recent boom in Japanese food around the world, these knives have become sought-after by international chefs too.
The History of Sakai Knives
The origins of the Sakai knife stretch as far back as the fifth century AD – the Kofun period. At that time, emperors were buried in the large, key-shaped mounds, which gave their name to this period of Japanese history. The most significant of these tombs, belonging to the Emperor Nintoku, still looms large over the Sakai district of Osaka today. As agriculture spread during that period, Sakai's craftsmen honed the skills and technology needed to manufacture high-quality bladed tools, such as hoes and plows.
Over a thousand years later in 1543, the Portuguese arrived in Japan with guns and tobacco. The craftsmen of Sakai quickly turned their expertise in metalwork to producing these new weapons, and the area became a major center for gun manufacturing during the turbulent Warring States period. But they found their skills could be of use for tobacco too. Towards the end of the 16th century, Sakai-made knives made for cutting tobacco leaves rapidly grew in popularity. Indeed, such was the quality of the blades that Sakai knives were said to be able even 'to cut through stone'.
The renown of these knives caught the attention of the Tokugawa shoguns, who gave their seal of approval and made these products an exclusive monopoly of the government. Thus, the fame of Sakai's blades spread throughout Japan.
In the mid-Edo period, Sakai craftsmen developed the iconic deba cooking knife and, from then on, various types of cooking knives began to appear. Although industrialization decimated demand for tobacco knives, the high-quality, traditional cooking blades remained beloved by chefs around the country. In 1982 Sakai Knives were designated a 'Traditional Japanese Craft' by the government of Japan.
The Features of a Sakai Knife
Sakai knives are handmade and hammer-forged blades constructed from soft iron and steel. The combination of these two metals allows the final knife to be both pliable and fantastically sharp. Every knife is made using a three-step process, and each step is undertaken by a different, specialized craftsman.
The first part, called tanzou, describes the forging and hammering of the blade itself. The pressure exerted during the hammering increases the density, strength, sharpness and pliability of the final knife; it also results in the distinctive marbled pattern seen on high-quality Sakai blades.
The second step, named togi or hatsuke, involves the highly specialized sharpening of the blade, which results in the famous, razor-like cutting capability of Sakai knives.
Finally, the blade is attached to the wooden handle in a process called etsuke. Both the blade and the receptacle hole in the handle are heated; the blade is then hammered into the handle.
Generally speaking, there are two types of Sakai knives: single bevel and double bevel. The single-bevel blades are the same as those found on Japanese swords (katana). They were developed in the mid-Edo period and are still the main products of the area's forges.
The single bevel knife has the advantage of being especially sharp; they cut beautifully, even through soft foods like fish. The razor-sharpness of the blade also helps to seal in the flavor of a given ingredient with very little residue left on the knife. The single bevel knife is, therefore, particularly useful for professionals.
The double-bevel blade, on the other hand, is more typical of European-style knives and is fantastic for everyday use at home. With both sides sharpened they are easier to use and are an effective all-rounder in the kitchen.
Uses and Maintenance of a Sakai knife
Sakai knives are especially popular among chefs and, for many Japanese, these are traditionally considered to be 'professional' knives. Such knives are often crafted for a particular culinary use with very different shapes and sizes. The most famous include: the deba, which is primarily for preparing fish; the yanagiba or the takohiki, which are used for sashimi; and the usuba, which is a vegetable knife. Beyond these are a myriad of other specialized blades used for everything from cutting noodles to preparing eel. Occasionally, knives with the same purpose have different shapes due to particular regional traditions.
In addition to these specialized, professional knives, Sakai craftsmen have become renowned as producers of high-quality blades for daily domestic use. Among the most famous of these is the santoku knife, for example. There are also a range of European-style knives, such as the gyuuto knife and paring knives for peeling and preparing fruit and vegetables.
Despite the name 'Sakai knives', these craftsmen also produce exquisite scissors. These are particularly popular due to their robustness and, of course, their sharpness. Sakai craftsmen make a range of scissors, which are particularly prized for use in ikebana (Japanese flower arranging) and pruning.
Maintenance of these exquisite knives and scissors is of utmost importance. Steel is prone to rust, so Sakai blades should be thoroughly washed and dried after every use. It is preferable to use a neutral washing liquid to rinse the knife, and a cloth to dry it. If the blade does become rusty, wipe with an abrasive sponge. Sakai knives should be regularly sharpened before their cutting ability becomes impaired. Most maintenance can be carried out at home. However, repairing a damaged blade or complete re-sharpening can be undertaken by Sakai craftsmen.