Just after sunrise, on what would become a sweltering June day, I walked briskly past unopened venders at Tokyo’s Tsujiki Market searching for the place where my friend Paul and I could sign up to watch the infamous five o’clock-in-the-morning tuna auction. At an unassuming street corner, a man in uniform, who later would with a bow, graciously refuse having his photograph taken, shook his head and said “Sold out.” The man allowed no time for the disappointment to set in; he quickly handed me a map to help us navigate the rest of the market and looked around for the next group of tourists he could turn away. I scanned the map for a few minutes before realizing it was entirely in Japanese, and remembered I can’t read Japanese.
Dejected, we retraced our steps, walking in silence. With sleepy eyes we scanned the sleepy streets and watched as fish mongers’ and shopkeepers’ diligent preparations evolved into a functional, frenzied fish market. We met up with our friend Ian who had overslept, and told him he wouldn’t have made it anyways. Every now and then I’d lift my iPhone to capture an image I couldn’t afford to forget, and then Paul would lift his Canon Rebel and take a much better picture of the same scene, which he promised to send me. With my attention simultaneously engaged and distracted, I nearly walked by the knife store, Masamoto Tsujiki, which, after the tuna auction was at the top of my must-visit list while in Japan.
My knife education began the first time I went to my boyfriend’s house. In his kitchen, on the east facing wall, were two eighteen-inch parallel magnetic strips. Stuck to these strips were over two dozen knives of various sizes and shapes immaculately arranged so that the spacing between them was perfect and all the blades were pointing in the same direction. Upon seeing this display, I assumed I was dating a serial killer with a fetish for blades and was scared for my life. Noticing my genuine fear, Ben explained his interest in Japanese cuisine and how knives were the most important element of Japanese cooking. Quoting Hiromitsu Nozaki he said, “To cut is actually to cook.” I was relieved that Ben wasn’t going to kill me, but I still flinched as he plucked one of the sharp steel blades from his collection to show me its unique detailing more closely.
As I looked at Ben’s impressive knife collection, I thought about the knives of my youth. In the house that I grew up in, in the third drawer from the right, below the sink, on the west wall of our kitchen was the silverware drawer. Inside was a tangle of metal that my mother always wished was arranged, but never was. Among the chaos were two knives that didn’t fall into the category of butter or steak knife; one was long, with a black handle and a dull serrated edge and the other was shorter than my hand and we called it a paring knife, though I am not sure if that is what it actually was. From as far as my memory goes until my mother sold that house just after I left for college, these two knives were responsible for dicing, chopping, slicing, mincing, peeling, and carving all of our family meals. Sitting at the table as a young girl, twirling spaghetti coated with homemade pasta sauce with my fork, I never thought about the technique or the tools my mother used to chop the tomatoes I was eating. Later, when I began cooking for myself, I would use the long bread knife to interchangeably chop lettuce for salad and slice steak or chicken breast. I used the paring knife for cutting apples, spreading peanut butter, and as a tool to retrieve burning bread from our unruly toaster (don’t worry, I unplugged it first).
However, since my senior year in high school, I had actively tried to further my culinary education; I trained with a professional baker, read cookbooks and culinary magazines, spent hours in the kitchen. Going out to eat was a hobby that consumed all of my extra money. Vacations abroad were essentially week-long taste-tests of new nations. After a flavor-filled five-day trip to Florence, I returned nine pounds heavier. Yet, some how, well into my gastronomical education, I had yet to learn that knives were worth studying. As a self-proclaimed gourmand, I was embarrassed by my oversight. Had I really not known what an important part knives played in cooking?
As our relationship progressed, Ben and I cooked together almost nightly. One night, he told me my chopping skills were admirable–patient, careful and confident–but he was constantly shaking his head at my knife choices. As I picked up one, he’d suggest another, and I’d roll my eyes at him. I was unwilling to retrain myself and eradicate my bad knife habits. My stubbornness was inexplicable and unwavering.
When I said earlier that Masamoto was the number two place on my list of places to see in Japan, I meant I had to go there because before I left for the airport Ben had pressed two crisp hundred dollar bills into my palm so I could buy him a new knife. He gave me detailed instructions: the shop, the location, the style, the type of steel, the price range. After being assured I wouldn’t be arrested when going through customs, I accepted the mission.
The shop was smaller than I expected but largely impressive. In the back of the shop, was a well-utilized sharpening station outfitted with a sharpening wheel and a few sinks with baths of murky grey water for use of a grit stone. In the center of the small shop, extending through the open shop front, was a long rectangular table with a checkered table cloth. Surrounding the table, and propped in front of the store, were cases backed with green felt and adorned with knives available for purchase. After one of the men working and I realized we had an insurmountable language barrier, I pulled out my knife notes. This language he knew well, but to me it was still foreign. He presented me with three long knives, each with a long blade, sharpened on one side and thick and heavy on the other. Their noses sloped into a point at the sharpened edge. I learned, from looking at my own notes, that this was a Kiritsuke blade. I picked up one of them from the table and, as lame as it sounds, I felt really, really cool. It was like I was holding a modern-day Samurai sword, a piece of history, a tangible piece of Japanese culture. What I didn’t know, at the time, was that is exactly what I was doing.
Japanese knives are essentially descendents of Samurai Swords. In 1803, Japan entered into the Tokugawa Period, also known as the Edo
Period, during which Japan was ruled by a feudal military government known as the Tokugawa shogunate. During the 250 year reign, the shogunate imposed strict social regulations and isolationist foreign policies. Japan’s economy strengthened and the country was at peace for over 250 years. This affected the roles of the Samurai warriors at the time, as many know, but what most do not think about is how the sword’s craftsman were affected. With less demand for swords, the same careful, age-old techniques of sword-making was now being put to use making kitchen knives.
While Japanese kitchen knives have their origins in the Edo period, they were not in high demand until the Meiji restoration, beginning in 1868. The Meiji Period marked the end of the feudal era and the beginning of modern Japan. One of the characteristics of this time was the abolishment of isolationism. As a result, Japan saw an influx of new cooking ingredients and a growing interest in foreign cuisine. Additionally, Buddhist diets were followed less strictly, cookbooks began to be published and cooking classes were widely offered. With the culinary revolution, came high demand for craft knives.
As American students of Japan, we learn Japanese history is linear, not cyclical. Japan learns from the past instead of revisiting policies that failed before them. Japan is known for being pragmatic and forward thinking. When the Samurai became obsolete, the sword-makers did not wait for the day the Samurai’s would return. Instead they used their skills to create a new product that was practical and innovative. Japanese sword-makers set the bar at perfection for knife-making and Japanese knives continue to be the best blades in the world.
“Want to try out it out,” Ian asked. My attention turned to him where he had splayed his hand out on the table. The man selling me the knife noticed, laughed, and said one word: “Sharp!” I was told to come back after the knife had been engraved (“My sun and my stars” in Japanese–Game of Thrones fans will get this one) and sharpened, so Paul, Ian and I did what you are supposed to do when at Tsujiki: eat.
We sat at one of the small food stands at the market and I ordered fatty tuna and salmon. Placed over a bowl of rice, garnished with wasabi and ginger, the salmon was cut into perfect sashimi slices and the tuna was minced. Never before had I seen such beautifully cut fish, and never before had I tasted salmon so smooth, fresh or flavorful. Fish anywhere else in the world had been ruined for me.
This wasn’t the first or last meal in Japan where I noticed the perfectly chopped or sliced ingredients, but I think it was eating the salmon, immediately after I had held the kiritsuke knife in my hand while surrounded by a myriad of impeccable blades, that I realized that it was true: in Japanese culture, to cut really is to cook. In his book Japanese Kitchen Knives: Essential Techniques and Recipes, Hiromitsu Nozaki explains how knives truly improve flavor:
“Take a tomato, for example, and the act of slicing. A knife with a dull edge will not immediately pierce the skin. It can saw through the tomato, which in essence is crushing the flesh. And while the slice might look fine at a glance, closer inspection will reveal an ill-defined edge and a dull surface. A knife with a quick blade, however, cuts through the fiber in a clean stroke. The cut edge will be as smooth and shiny as a mirror … A tomato cut with a dull knife loses juice and umami elements, and even when eaten immediately, the texture is limp. A slice of tomato cut with a sharp knife, however, will overwhelm you with its natural juiciness and umami. The same goes for sashimi.”(7)
While to this day I enjoy my mother’s homemade tomato sauce, I wonder how much more flavorful it could be if the next time the basil chiffonade or tomato chunks are sliced with a proper knife.
On the night I returned from my trip, Ben and I cooked dinner. I cannot remember what was on the menu as I was extremely jet-lagged, but I do remember one of the ingredients was carrots. Ben took out his new knife and I, shocked, said, “You’re going to cook with that?” I guess I had never thought he’d use it, after all, it was so perfect, so new, so expensive. What if it was ruined? He replied, “Of course.” I watched as he peeled the carrots into cylinders and then began carving them into little flowers. He explained that the technique was called Kazari-giri and he said he wasn’t very good at it. I did notice the imperfections of the curves but I was impressed nonetheless.
As I watched, I fired questions at him about the knives, about Japanese cooking, about how much he liked his new knife. He was surprised by my newfound wonder, the absence of my eye-rolling. Some people are inspired to paint after standing in front of the Mona Lisa, others decide to run after bearing witness to a marathon. Ben had tried to educate me on how cool knives are for over a year, but it took a trip around the world for me to develop an interest in knife-culture. Specifically, it would take a trip to Masamoto Tsujiki.
If I hadn’t just flown around the world, I would have taken a turn with the new knife, but for the sake of saving all my fingers, I just watched. As he quickly chopped, I imparted the wisdom I had learned abroad to him: “Sharp!” He laughed and handed me a carrot and I popped the little flower into my mouth.