Nakiri vs Usuba. Which to Buy?
Usuba, or nakiri?
Two vegetable specialists, but what are the main differences? Which is the better vegetable knife for you? We hope this summary helps point you in the right direction.
When we prepare vegetables in Japan we do so to eat them with chopsticks. That means a lot of slicing, dicing and chopping.
In the home the nakiri is a traditional Japanese knife for the job. The name says it all: na means leaf, kiri refers to the cut. In any cuisine the nakiri is useful to lovers of soups, salads and vegetables.
The literal translation of usuba is thin blade - 'usui' is the Japanese for thin and 'ba' is derived from 'ha', as in hamono, which means blade or edge tool.
In Japan you're more likely to see an usuba in the hands of a professional chef than in daily use in the home; along with the deba and yanagiba it's one of the three main knives used in a Japanese commercial kitchen.
Whereas a nakiri is invariably a double-bevel knife, the usuba is (almost always) a kataha or single bevel blade. The styles share a flat blade profile, with neither having any belly to speak of. Their straight edges lend themselves to accurate push-cutting and chopping on the board and controlled fine cutting in the hand.
Here’s a quick summary of their differences:
|Double bevel||・||Single bevel|
|Easy sharpening||・||Skilled sharpening|
|Good volume processor||・||The choice for fine and decorative cutting work|
|Suitable for both left and right-handers||・||Right-handed *or* left-handed|
|Commonly 16~18cm, wa and western handles||・||Longer blades available, Japanese handles|
|Comparatively low-priced||・||Premium knives can command premium prices|
Which is the better to buy?
An usuba is simply a beautiful object in and of itself, and highly desirable. That could be all the reason you need to pull the trigger.
There are aspects of ownership to consider, however. Sharpening, for one.
A major point of difference between the usuba and the nakiri is in their sharpening. Sharpening an usuba requires practise and it's fair to say most people will not find the single-bevel usuba easy to sharpen well on a whetstone.
In use? Traditionally the usuba is the first knife the Japanese trainee chef must master - and that can take years. The non-professional user will probably want to use an usuba in a slow and deliberate manner. Those who use an usuba confidently will have had many, many hours with the knife in their hand.
Should you buy one in preference to a nakiri? Depends.
Let's say you're a knife enthusiast. You’re after heft, superior sharpness and cutting feel, can handle a longer blade, you wish to master Japanese cuisine and are looking for the tool that is best suited to oft-used cutting techniques - you're also willing to adapt to a traditional handle and blade. Sharpening a single-bevel knife isn’t an issue - you know what you're doing there. For you an usuba may be the right choice, but then again, with your knowledge and experience you're probably not going to be swayed by the brief summary we present here.
So to the nakiri, a vegetable specialist for those of us with less specialized needs. Like the usuba it isn't the best option for fish or meat so at least one other knife will be needed in most home kitchens.
And that's where you'll find most of them. The advantage of the nakiri lies in its cost-performance and versatility. You can happily practise your Japanese foody skills, at the same time enjoy a knife that's easy to sharpen and generally not quite as delicate as an usuba.
A nakiri will likely spend much of its working life chopping on a board so again sharpening is a consideration, but in this context it's a matter of not only 'how' but 'how often'.
In this respect a nakiri is easier to live with than an usuba. Many home-standard sharpening tools will be fine to use: whetstones of course, ceramic wheels, a Lansky kit, all good - as long as it's not motorized then most sharpeners should be fine. Naturally the knife steel plays a part here - an edge of 'haisu' high-speed steel will be slower to sharpen than say, aogami#2.
A nakiri will be lighter than an usuba of the same length due to the overall thinness of the blade, weighing as much as forty per cent less than an usuba at a similar blade length.
Price-wise a quality nakiri will almost always be cheaper than a quality usuba. While there are excellent nakiri knives to be found - both hand-forged and factory produced - most usubas are a step up in quality and therefore price. Inexpensive nakiris abound. As a mainstay professional tool a budget usuba won't find many buyers.
If you regularly need to process volumes of leafy vegetables then a nakiri will be a rewarding, easy-to-use knife that will allow you to try your hand at sengiri and katsuramuki when the inspiration takes hold. Love coleslaw? You'll appreciate a nakiri. If your diet includes a lot of vegetables, soups and salads the nakiri can function perfectly well as a primary knife.
For everyday family cooking in a home kitchen we vote for the nakiri as the sensible choice.
But then again, life isn't always about being sensible...