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A Cut Above – Testing Japanese Knives

People ask me all the time – ”What is your favourite kitchen knife? You must have so much stuff in your kitchen!”

To tell you the truth, I don’t. What I have is the combination of years of trial and error, until my wife and I curated just the right blend of just what we need to get the jobs done. Cooking is my passion, a release, and a way I nourish my family. I take it, and the gear I use, very seriously.

Like almost anyone I know, I grew up with Zwilling Henckels 4 Star kitchen knives. These were (and still are) excellent knives for almost any job. However, I didn’t know that knives could be better. That was until I was introduced to Japanese kitchen knives.

In the late 80’s, or maybe even 1990, I was introduced to Global Japanese kitchen Knives, and my relationship with knives changed forever. Except for razor blades, I didn’t know that knives could be so sharp. This began the huge shift to Japanese kitchen knives in our cooking culture. At our family’s houseware store in Sidney, we started selling Global and introduced an elevated way to prepare food to our local community. Even through I still appreciated old school French and German knives, I was hooked on Japanese.

Fast forward to today.

The Japanese invasion continues, with manufacturers like Mac, Shun, Miyabi and many other smaller knife manufacturers making their way over to North America. Companies like Knifeware, based out of Calgary, are doing an awesome job highlighting small artisan makers. You can now get a wide range of Japanese knives, made for all uses and to fit any budget. It has been incredibly exciting to be apart this part of this growth. I’ve learned loads, and with time, I have made sense of why you would spend $100 or $1000 on a knife.

There is a lot of technical jargon and conflicting information when it comes to the ‘best knife’. Is hard steel best because it can hold a finer edge, or soft best because you can maintain it easily? Is a narrow blade better than a wider blade? The answer is that almost every good quality knife maker is justified to sell their knives on the market and there isn’t the Holy Grail of Knives. You can buy a hand made Bob Kramer knife, for $1000 per inch! (Do the math on an 8″chef knife).

But are they worth it? That depends on who you are and what you like to spend your money on. For nearly everyone, the reasonable answer is “no’. The reason is that you can get almost the same performance from a $100 knife as you can from a $1000 knife, or even an $8000 knife!

You can spend whatever amount you want but when it comes down to it, your choice is all about what is best for you. I suggest a few things:

  1. Choose a budget and stick to it – You can easily escalate but it’s best to feel good about the value of your purchase over the long term. I’ve had customers spend too much on something and tell me a year or so later “oh, ya, I don’t use that too much, I paid a lots for it”. I’ve bought knives back from customers that wouldn’t take them out of the package. It’s a fricken’ kitchen knife, USE IT!
  2. Feel – it’s all about feel. NEVER buy a knife without test driving a knife. If the place you are buying from does not let you test drive the brand, find somewhere that does.  This is a simple but critical step. You may find that the lighter, cheaper knife feels better in your hand over the more expensive model that you may be more attracted to. This is common. Some places that allow you to try out a knife before you buy are Cook Culture, House of Knives, and Penna & Co in Victoria, and Cook Culture, House of Knives and Knifeware in Vancouver.
  3. Maintenance – When moving into a Japanese blade you will need to maintain the blade a little bit differently than you would with a Western. Typically, Japanese blades are harder and thinner. So you need a finer honer and if you are using a pull through, make sure it cuts at the correct angle. This is critical. 

Playing with Global and Kusumi

We’ve expanded our Global Classic range and just added Global NI and Kasumi Damascus Knives. These are wonderfully practical knives. The Global knives are similar, but with a slightly different handle and thinner blade than the NI. The Kasumi has a resonated Pakka wood d-shaped handle which delivers a very different feel. This is a very comfortable and appealing knife to use. I definitely like the weight and feel over the Global knives.

Putting them to the test

Global Classic

These knives feel like an old pair of jammies to me. So familiar, and they do exactly what I expect. Granted, I’ve been using this brand for almost 2/3rd of my life.  The blades are exceptionally sharp, however the knives are extremely light. This is the single largest comment I get when showing these to people. If you like a heavy knife, you will not like Global. If you like using a razor blade, look no further.

Global NI

This line was introduced a few years ago in response to the lightweight issue of the Classic line.  They have an excellent balance and their blades are a bit thicker. I really like the feeling of these in my hand, and they love to work. In the end, I still found myself gravitating to the Classic for the blistering sharpness.

Kasumi

Everything about the Kasumi line is great. The d-shape handle feels natural and smooth in the hand. The knives are made in a traditional “Samurai Sword’ shape and are constructed with 32 Damascus styled layers of stainless steel. But the sharpness, wow. These knives perform so well; I kept wanting to find more to cut up and I spent the majority of my time playing with our new Kasumi Knives. They are a joy to use.

Verdict

After years of loving the Global Classics, I think think it’s the Kasumi that comes out on top here. Granted, it’s not totally apples to apples as the knife lines are at two different price points, and they are made using different methods, but my point here is that it doesn’t matter. The knife that feels good in your hand is the knife to go with. I found that I liked the body and balance of the Kasumi, and it is just as sharp as the Global Classic.

Maintaining my new blade

The MinoSharp Water Honer is the best tool to maintain Global and Kasumi knives. Weekly maintenance is key to long term success of owning a knife and nothing is easier or better than one of these units. We will sharpen your knives for free, forever, but you must maintain them at home as often as you can. Japanese knives get ‘off angle’ quite quickly and must be ‘straightened’. This doesn’t meant that they are dull, but they will feel dull. A quick ‘hone’ will make them feel new. Once honing stops working, then it’s time for a sharpening at our stores.

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