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In support of the santoku

In support of the santoku

Some people just don’t seem to 'get' santoku knives. This soon becomes clear if you look back over various santoku threads on online cooking and kitchen knife forums to find what’s been written about them.

Imagine. You’ve posed a question in an online forum, something along the lines of “Which santoku?” or “Santoku recommendations?” Online communities invariably seem to include self-styled influencers here to tell you you’re walking the wrong road if it leads to santoku ownership. They’ll offer their reasons. Too short. Too tall. Not pointy enough.

Some of it is very depressing for the santoku seller to read >.<

To cheer myself up I thought it would be fun to jot down some of the negative comments that appear online about santoku knives and chew over them a little in the hope of raising some relevant points for prospective buyers.

And so, to some of the comments our anti-santoku activists might offer...

"Santoku is just a marketing term"

‘Santoku’ is indeed a marketing term, in that it is a recognized name for an item that is manufactured and sold, in this case a general-purpose cooking knife for the home.

Bannou-bocho and bunka-bocho are alternative ‘marketing’ names for similar knives, with ‘bannou’ the most common name in Japan for these knives. Move along folks, nothing to see here.

"The santoku is just a poor copy of a western chef’s knife"

The santoku is a knife that originated in Japan in response to local market opportunities and demand, not with an eye for export markets in the twenty-first century. It’s a Japanese knife.

Admittedly it didn’t exist before 1945. With post-war internationalization, factory farming, efficient transport systems , the widespread adoption of refrigeration and higher incomes consumers in Japan began to eat far more meat and fish than previously and the most useful knife up to then (the nakiri) wasn’t very useful for those. The development of a short general-purpose kitchen knife for the home really was not that great a leap for knife makers in Japan looking for sales.

"Santokus are cheap knives in Japan"

Sure, there have been cheap products made in Japan in the last hundred years. And yes, you can drop in to a Japanese homeware centre tomorrow and pick up a functional fabricated santoku for the local equivalent of twenty bucks. You could probably get something made in China for two bucks if you look around. Or you put your name on a waiting list for something that costs a couple of grand.

Some santokus are cheap, some are anything but. This is Japan. There’s something for everyone.

"The santoku is for Japanese housewives"

So amongst all that lust-worthy professional-grade artisanal steel, there’s a general purpose knife for the home? Never!

Let’s just say for many who prepare meals at home (be they Japanese, female, married or not) it’s enough to have one sharp knife of good steel that’s easy to use, easy to sharpen and that accomplishes their usual cutting tasks with minimal frustration.

(I should add it’s not that the ‘Japanese housewives’ comment is necessarily wrong. It’s the spirit in which it is usually offered, implying that santoku knives are somehow unworthy because Japanese housewives use them. A very odd sentiment.)

"The santoku doesn’t do anything particularly well"

I’ve owned a Corolla and I could argue that it didn’t excel in any particular area. But while it was mine I used it pretty much every day without a hint of frustration. It was a very competent vehicle, easy to own and it did what I needed it to do. It was silver, too, so I didn’t have to wash it very often. Don’t laugh – that was important to me.

We buy products that we anticipate will meet our needs. Santoku, bannou and bunka knives are common knives in Japan and have been for a long time. They obviously meet the needs of many users.

Japanese makers produce more of these knives than any other. They cut well. And the variety found amongst knives sold with this label makes it possible for users to find one that they can cut well with.

Yes, you could have a superior dedicated knife for almost every common cutting task you could ask of a santoku; life would be different with a gyuto, a deba, a sashimi knife and a nakiri to hand. Whether you would appreciate that life more than having only one knife to wash, only you can say.

What the santoku, or bannou or bunka do do well is serve as a functional replacement for those other four knives. None of the others can make the same claim.

The more I reflect on the comments of the anti-santoku lobby, the more I realise their advice is well-meaning but made without reference to why these knives are well suited to the task.

The point of the santoku is that it isn’t a specialised knife. It exists to aid in the preparation of everyday meals at home. That’s it. Just bear in mind that your everyday meal in Connecticut or Cornwall may not resemble your everyday meal in Hakodate or Hiroshima.

The santoku is said to be designed for meat, fish and vegetables. But your idea of meat and the Japanese idea of meat may be quite different.

When santoku meets meat it is likely to be in the straightforward slicing or dicing of modestly-sized cuts into bite-sized portions that can be eaten with chopsticks. Any santoku does that sort of work perfectly well.

It’s equally useful for end-preparation fish-cutting tasks, and excellent for the kind of vegetable preparation that makes up for most of the cutting work in a Japanese home kitchen – think sengiri, think rangiri, think vegetables for the pot. (Again, think chopsticks.)

Japanese family kitchens are primarily geared for preparing family meals of this type. If you’re considering buying a santoku and this makes up the kind of straightforward cutting work you do then feel free to ignore the naysayers.

If you’re in the market for a santoku and you’re aiming for it to be your only knife, consider why they are popular in the Japanese context. Think of it as a Japanese end-user’s knife and you’ll have better chance of knowing if one is right for you.

As to which one, there are plenty out there at widely varying price points, available in a range of blade lengths, profiles, steels and handles. It’s more than likely you’ll be able to find one that suits the way you already use a kitchen knife and what you want to cut with it, and the space you have to work in.

If you have no idea what kind of knife you need then a santoku is probably an ideal choice. As your skills improve and your knife requirements broaden you might add more knives to your armory, meanwhile your santoku will keep on cutting and doing it well.

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