When John Steinbeck, the famous American novelist, came to Japan for the International Pen Club convention, he bought several Japanese cooking knives as souvenirs. I’ve always been curious to know why Mr. Steinbeck was fascinated by these knives. He may have been impressed by the quality of Japanese knives, or by their sharpness, or perhaps he was amazed by their variety. Since he has passed away and since I can’t find any clue in his writings, I don’t know what prompted him to buy these knives. But I sometimes evaluate people by what they buy as gifts from foreign countries, and I am impressed that John Steinbeck didn’t buy cheap Kimonos or cameras or pearls for souvenirs.
Japanese cooking knives are first of all of extremely good quality and, secondly of great variety. Part of our cultural heritage is swordmaking and this traditional skill has inspired Japanese cutlery. The Japanese sword is a symbol of Japanese Samurai culture. In past centuries, when one looked at a sword one could tell to whom it belonged, his social status, his ability as a Samurai, something of his swordmanship, and also of his spirituality. Samurai always competed to possess the best sword which encouraged swordmakers to improve the quality of their work. Because swords were so important, swordmakers kept the secrets of their technology among their family or disciples.
One of the greatest secrets in the process of making swords is the temperature of the water used in tempering the blade. Again and again, the sword is removed from the heat, hammered and immersed in water. The precise temperature is what gives durability and sharpness – so each maker kept this secret to himself. Occasionally a new apprentice or a stranger to the workshop would pretend to fall and in doing so would stick his hand in the water. The swordmaker had the right to chop off his hand there and then. The same kind of secret technology is now involved in Japanese knife-making since we no longer need swords for fighting. Each Japanese knife maker is proud to put his own name on his knife; as if it represents his spirit in material form. When a Japanese chef is permitted to open his own restaurant, after grueling years of apprenticeship, and be his own master, he is given the best quality knives as a symbol of his craftsmanship, his spirituality and his dedication, as if they were the sword of a Samurai.
Every morning a Japanese chef sharpens his knives as if he were sharpening his cooking abilities. Japanese food such as Sashimi is so simple – just sliced raw fish prepared with no sauce or dressing; because of this it is difficult to impress with your cooking expertise. Slicing is the only preparation and how you slice can be evaluated at the first bite of sashimi. Next time when you go to a Japanese restaurant sit in front of the Sushi Bar. After the first bite if you have the courage to say to the chef, “You haven’t sharpened your knife today; though I find your raw fish very fresh, the cut is dull,” the chef will respect you and give you the best quality food. The importance of the knife is great; such a simple factor, which cannot be camouflaged. When a chef moves from one restaurant to another he always brings his own knives; he is attached to them as if they were a part of himself. When he retires or gives up his franchise he will allow his disciple or son to use his name and restaurant and will generally give his knives as a symbol of giving his own self.
~ TO BE CONTINUED
Next time: Variety of Knives