Art in its purest form is taking something raw and ugly, and turning it into a beautiful expression of human emotion. Anyone can attempt to create art, but few can produce work at the highest level of mastery. Making sushi is one example.
When ordinary people make sushi, they put their seaweed, rice, veggies, and fish together on a plastic-wrapped bamboo mat, then spend ten minutes rolling it only to be greeted with a hot mess. In contrast, master sushi chefs move in a rhythmic and hypnotic pattern that can only be learned through years of practice; in less than two minutes they create a work of edible art. The gap between amateur-made sushi and expertly-made sushi is equivalent to the difference between a toddler’s finger painting and Rembrandt’s The Night Watch.
However, a skilled sushi chef does not just create art, he or she works with a piece of art: the sushi knife. Most of the top-quality sushi knives are a functional masterpiece of human craftsmanship. A chef can use an ordinary knife to prep ingredients and cut fish, but to work at the highest level the knife must be equal to the artist who is wielding it.
Sushi Knives Are Expensive for Many Reasons
A sushi chef needs an extremely sharp, incredibly durable, and ergonomically balanced knife, in addition, the most skilled sushi chefs also gravitate towards aesthetically pleasing and artisan-crafted tools.
Sushi knives are expensive for several reasons: they are produced from costly materials; they are made individually or in small batches; production is slow and labor-intensive; and they are made by master craftsmen who incorporate centuries of tradition and years of training into the making of each knife.
History Adds Value
Japan has centuries-old traditions of blade craftsmanship. Samurai swords were renowned for their quality and strength. Myths arose that the blades of samurai swords were so sharp that Japanese soldiers used them to cut through machine guns in WWII.
Unlikely as that is, there is no doubt that a quality sushi knife has no problem slicing through fish. But how did the master weapon-makers become involved with the culinary arts?
In 1876 Japan banned the carrying of samurai swords, consequently, the demand for the blades severely diminished and the swordsmiths had to find new markets. Many began to apply their knowledge on the smaller scale of the hand-to-hand fighting knives. It was a large change in dimensions, yet the same techniques still applied. Therefore, the art was not lost, it was only translated into a different setting. The sushi knife inherits both the craftsmanship and the metaphorical function of the samurai sword.
Consider the sushi knife as the chef’s weapon; the chef has to take this tool into their battlefield, the kitchen, where it must be able to stand up to the challenge. To create an implement worthy of this task, the knife-maker uses the history and traditions behind samurai sword fabrication to create an amazing culinary weapon, the sushi knife. This level of in-depth expertise built up from centuries of forging and crafting adds to both the cost and the quality of the knives.
High-Quality Knives Need High-Quality Materials
A high-quality sushi knife must be made from high-quality materials. Sushi knives must be very sharp because sushi chefs have to be quick, furthermore, if a knife is dull then there is a high chance of injury.
Premium carbon steel is commonly used to make the blade. Carbon steel is a softer metal that can be made very sharp, however, the edge does not hold very long so sushi chefs must constantly sharpen their knives. High carbon stainless steel which is lightweight and durable can hold an edge longer than regular steel, many sushi chefs appreciate this quality. Chefs must decide if they prefer the durability of carbon steel versus the superior sharpness of premium high carbon stainless steel.
In addition, Damascus steel is sometimes used. It is an exceptionally hard metal that holds a razor-sharp edge for long periods of time. It can be easily recognized by its wavy pattern that arises when the smith layers different composites and then forges them together. All three of these metals are expensive when they are of high quality, so when coupled with other elements of the manufacturing process they result in a very expensive sushi knife.
Artisan Work Adds Cost and Quality
Traditional craftsmanship is an essential element that distinguishes a high-quality sushi knife. Ordinary Japanise chief knives like Gyuto Knife, Nakiri Knife, Santoku Knife, Deba Knife, Usuba Knife, or Kukri Knife can be mass-produced in the thousands by machines, but truly special sushi knives of the highest quality are handmade.
An artisan spends many years mastering the art of bladesmithing. They are coached for years by a master and spend countless hours honing their craft and striving for the unattainable goal of perfection. The sheer amount of time dedicated to a single knife shows in the end product.
Master bladesmith Tsubame Sanjo is world-renowned for his skill at making knives. Some people have waited years to get a knife from this third-generation maestro, even his most simple blades often take up to twenty-four hours from start to finish.
The Expertise Increases Cost
The amount of thought and knowledge put into each knife is vast. The craftsmen have to understand the metal they are working with, what elements might damage it, how the environment will affect its creation, and innumerable nuanced intricacies that can only be learned through time.
For example, a master craftsman understands that the weather outside might affect the cooling process because if it’s too cold it might create stress fractures in the blade. A master craftsman’s abilities with metal are impossible to recreate mechanically. They can feel and see things in a blade that are imperceptible to machines, for instance, some bladesmiths believe that they can almost feel the molecular structure of a knife.
Time Costs Money
There are many intricate steps that go into making a quality knife. The first step, and one of the most labor-intensive, is the forging. The metal has to be tempered and shaped in a very specific pattern to achieve the best result.
The craftsman has to heat the metal, then pound, and then dunk in water over and over until the metal is hardened and durable. This process is especially crucial because quality sushi knives are exceptionally thin and therefore must be very strong.
Next, they are sanded and coerced into a smooth texture and straight angle. If the tang is not as perfect as possible it makes the assembly extremely difficult. In a sushi knife, the entire blade must be perfectly angled because a sushi chef has to make extremely clean and precise cuts.
The third part is the kilning of the knives, they are brought up to extremely high-temperature levels, then methodically cooled. This process hardens the metal even more by rearranging the molecular structure. However, this is not the final hardening step, kilning and quenching again allows the blade to reach its desired thinness while still maintaining strength.
Next, the blades, which are still in rough shape, are pounded by hand for many hours. After the pounding, back into the kiln one last time to reach the desired and final level of hardness. Either after this kilning, or more commonly before, the metal will be polished and its final shape will take form. This form is a distinguishing feature of sushi knives, other knives with various uses can be a general shape, but a sushi knife is designed for one purpose, so the perfect shape is essential.
After this, the knives are sharpened and the final assembly takes place. The blade is put together and the tang is integrated into the handle. This entire long process is crucial to the quality of the knife. One wrong step and the artisan might have to scrap his work and start from scratch. This is one reason that many master knife builders only work with other masters or small groups of apprentices because every step must be scrutinized and controlled.
The Expertise Makes for Higher Quality
There are many minute details that can transform a knife into a work of art. Sushi knife makers take a utilitarian item and metamorphize it into an elegantly designed work of functional art. A knife made by a true artisan is not just a piece of metal that is attached to a piece of wood. It is a culmination of years of training, a lifetime of expertise, and the craftsman’s time and energy packed into the knife. In short, it is an exceptional piece of art.
Art in The Market
Honyaki, one of the most famous names in sushi knives is revered by sushi chefs for the high quality of their knives and the traditional process used to make them. Their process uses forging techniques that are very similar to that of the Samurai sword makers. These knives are not only revered but they’re also extremely expensive.
Most are above $500 and quite a few exceed $1,000. Part of the expense is due to the quality of materials – they use only high carbon steel. Additionally, their traditional techniques, attention to detail, consistency of quality, and small production output result in prices higher than most other knives on the market.
The Small Scale Adds Cost
Another factor that adds to the cost of a sushi knife is the scale of production. Factories can make tens of thousands of knives in the same amount of time it takes a master craftsman to make only ten knives. The exclusivity and workmanship of handmade products cannot be matched by a machine.
The nuances of the artisan blade are so refined that a machine, even if they tried to replicate it, will not produce the same quality and will not have the same history and soul that accompanies a blade made by a master smith in Japan.
Many people question whether an expensive knife is worth the price. The answer will always depend on the person, but to a sushi chef, the answer is clear. A sushi knife’s worth is dependent on so much more than just its use; it also includes history, the thought, and the care put into producing the best product possible.
The utility of the knife might not be vastly different than an ordinary retail knife, but the care behind the creation can be felt by the chef and seen in the end product that the knife creates. Some chefs even feel the soul inside the knife.
The Egyptians believed that part of one’s soul is made from its memories. Many chefs believe that an artisan-crafted knife has the same quality. The memory of the craftsman mixed with the memories of the edible art it creates gives it a soul. The feeling of an expensive knife is the feeling of someone’s pride and love in that weapon of the culinary arts. The craftsmen are artists that create a versatile, beautiful, and beloved tool.
A sushi knife is expensive because its materials are expensive, but a much more important factor is the skill and time put into it. These artisans understand that they are making something important, so they put in their best effort, create the best product possible, and sell it for a price that recognizes and mirrors the work necessary for its creation.