The Japanese Santoku Knife... An Introduction

Santoku knives are everywhere. You can find them in professional and home kitchens, on food networks being used by famous chefs, and you can even see them at the hardware store or on sale standing in line at Whole Foods.

In recent years, this knife has also started to become more and more popular among Western and European cooks. In this article, we will “chop through” the buzz surrounding this knife, and we’ll attempt to answer some of the more popular questions that surround this trendy blade.

What Is A Santoku Knife?

To be put simply, a Santoku knife is essentially the Japanese equivalent of a European Chef knife. It’s the perfect “all-rounder,” and it excels at almost any kind of task you or your kitchen can throw at it.

This is further backed up by the meaning of the word Santoku. The name Santoku in Japanese loosely translates to “three qualities” or “three virtues,” meaning that this knife excels at the three primary motions of a knife, which are chopping, dicing, and mincing. Others believe that the three virtues instead represent the three food groups that a Santoku manages with ease, which are meat, fish, and vegetables.

Regardless of what you believe the three virtues are, Santokus are legendary knives that will effortlessly cut through anything on your cutting board. This is why they’re favourited by chefs because they can fulfill many roles in the kitchen and make what some people might say is a more exotic and sexier substitute to the European Chef knife.

Identifying & How to Use A Santoku Knife

The Santoku features what some people call a "Sheepsfoot" blade, which means that it roughly resembles a sheep's hoof in the way that the blade is shaped. This is because the cutting edge of the blade profile is mostly straight and only curves upwards slightly when connecting to the tip. As opposed to a European Chef knife, which has more of a belly (rounded cutting edge). In other words, the Santoku knife has an almost completely straight cutting edge with a less pronounced point.

These differences in the shape of the cutting edge are important to understand because they each require a different kind of cutting form to be utilized effectively.

Cook demonstrating how a traditional German chef knife is used with a cutting rocking heel tip chopping form while slicing onions on a bamboo cutting board Professional chef demonstrating how to use a Japanese santoku kitchen knife with a straight down cutting motion while cutting a tomato over a wooden chopping board

It is also commonly stated that the cutting motion of a Santoku allows for more control and input directly to the blade. The Chef knife requires more of a rocking motion, whereas the Santoku needs more of a straight down outwards pushing vertical chop.

Santoku blades excel at performing this straight down cutting motion because they tend to be made from harder steel. The stronger steel also allows the blade profiles to be thinner and, therefore, sharper than its Western counterpart. Many people believe that learning the proper cutting form for Santoku cutting is quite easy and a perfect way to gradually introduce yourself to handling Japanese knives.

The Santoku also has a slightly wider blade than a typical Chef knife, which makes it great for scooping veggies and other items up from the cutting board!

A typical 200-250 millimetre (roughly 8-10 inch) Chef knife can sometimes be too big or have awkward blade-to-handle length ratios for people with smaller hands. This is why the smaller but more agile Santoku is often favourited by many female chefs.

History & Origins of the Japanese Santoku Knife

Up until the years before WWII, Japanese cooks had traditionally used either Deba, Nakiri, or Usuba knives. But afterwards, the Japanese were increasingly exposed to Western and European cooking and foods.

The primary catalyst for this is the development and popularity of Supermarkets/American-style Grocery stores.

This allowed Japanese families to purchase smaller portions of fish, which were already gutted and processed, which meant that the prevalence of Deba knives started to decrease because Japanese families didn’t need to purchase whole fish in bulk at fish markets. It was also merely just cheaper for families to buy pre-cut and portioned fillets of fish at the Supermarkets.

The economic boom also allowed Japanese families to deviate away from primarily fish-based diets and start purchase foods that were more expensive and deemed “luxurious,” such as red meats.

This also led to Western cultures becomes associated with terms like "modern, convenient, quick, intelligent, scientific.” The Western notion of thrift and efficiency also influenced the number of knives in a Japanese kitchen. The idea was that “you don’t need a dozen knives when you can cut all your meat and vegetables with just one good knife.”

Thus the Santoku knife was born with inspiration from the European chef knife and was designed to be able to handle traditional Japanese cuisine in addition to red meats and vegetables.

Why It's Such A Cool Knife!

At Masuta Knife Imports, we love the interesting cultural stories that knives teach us. The Santoku knife is one of our favourite blades because it tells the exciting story of how Japanese people were affected, but then beautifully adapted their culinary and eating habits to the economic boom resulting after the Second World War.