It doesn't matter if you are an amateur or professional chef. One of the most important and most used tools in your kitchen is the knife. It can be confusing trying to figure out what type of knife to buy: Western or Asian? Which one is better? Western knives tend to be heavier, sturdier, and last longer. Whereas Asian knives are the opposite and tend to be sharper, lighter, and more fragile. Hopefully, after reading this article, it will help you better understand what you are looking for and which knife suits your needs the best.
One of the main knife producing region in Asia is China. The production of knives is said to have started fifteen hundred years ago in China when the imperial army set up camp in Yangjiang for a few years. Local artisans began to craft swords for them, and with practice, they became master blacksmiths. Once the soldiers left their station, the artisans' reputation was known throughout the country, and they continued to make swords that were renowned all over China. However, as time went on and technology improved, swords became unnecessary, and the artisans decided to transition into knives.
In China, we are introduced to the Chinese cleaver. It is a single knife that can be used for all kitchen duties; it is used in essentially the same way as a chef's knife: for just about everything. It can be tasked to mince, dice, chop, slice, and julienne. One common misconception about this knife is that it is the same as a regular butcher's cleaver. Actually, it is only called a cleaver because it has the same shape as the traditional one. However, a butcher's cleaver is meant to be swung and cut through bones without chipping or breaking. The Chinese cleaver actually has a narrower blade design, even though it can be used for heavy-duty tasks such as chopping, but you wouldn't want to just hack through bones with it. A lot of people enjoy this knife because it also acts as a bench scraper, so you can easily transport your minced garlic into your hot pan. The image shown is Kotai's Chinese Cleaver.
Another prominent knife making region in Asia is Japan, in particular Seki and Sakai. Japan values tradition and their knives are made with hundreds of years of accumulated knowledge and experience passed down from generation to generation. Japanese chef knives are made by techniques that were initially developed for making samurai swords (katana). During the Meiji Restoration, the beginning of modernization and Westernization, the samurais were banned from carrying swords. This ban left many skilled craftsmen with no job, and that was when they turned to craft kitchen knives.
Japanese knives are known to be sharp and hard. A typical Japanese knife has a hardness rating ranging from 58-65 HRC (Hardness Rockwell C), whereas their German counterpart has a 52-56 HRC rating. Japanese knives usually contain more carbon than German blades. This makes them harder, and their edges stay sharp for longer. However, because of the extra carbon, it is not as stainless, and you would need to be extra careful about washing and storage. They are often single beveled, which is when they are sharpened so that only one side holds the cutting edge. Usually, the cutting edge is placed on the right side since most people are right-handed. Japanese knife makers rarely sell knives where the cutting edge is placed on the left side. This means that for our lefties wanting a Japanese knife, they will have to make a special order for it to be custom made.
Western knives are on the opposite end of the spectrum compared to Asian knives. Germany is one of the most well-known regions that manufacture knives, more specifically, Solingen. Solingen is a city in Northern Germany known for manufacturing swords, knives, scissors, and razors because all the artisans were there. Solingen has been known for its blades since the Middle Ages. Northern Europe valued the quality of Solingen's weapons, and those weapons were traded all across the European continent. Today, Solingen remains as the knife center of Germany. Two of the top German knife manufacturers, Wusthof and Henckels, are based in Solingen.
German knives are typically heavier with a thicker blade and have a Hardness Rockwell C rating of 52-56, which is lower than the Japanese knives, indicating that they are softer. Softer metals usually mean that the knife is more durable and better at doing various tasks. The curve of the blade usually starts toward the middle of the cutting edge. Their blade edge is sharpened on both sides, which is stronger than the single-edged blades. The knife's back or spine is also sturdy, flat, and straight, which allows for a greater balance and precision when you are using it. However, because it is a softer steel, the edges become dull faster than the average Japanese knife.
French knives are very similar to the ones made in Germany, with only slight differences. French knives are designed for fast and easy chopping, they are often thinner than German knives, and the blade's curve starts closer towards the top of the knife. This allows for greater control and keeps the cutting area used in chopping a bit smaller. With only slight differences between the French and German knives, picking between the two will be purely based on which one you feel most comfortable with.
So Which Knife?
At the end of the day, each type of knife is useful for different tasks. The Chinese cleaver is known for its multipurpose use, from chopping to cutting to slicing. You can do a lot with one knife; however, a high level of skill is required to have proper control and complete delicate tasks. Most western chefs find the Chinese cleaver hard to use instead of the classic chef knives. Japanese knives are suitable for fine and delicate tasks such as cutting vegetables and slicing meats, with the downside of higher maintenance. German and french knives are more robust and are good for heavier duty tasks such as cutting and chopping. However, they dull faster, so you would need to sharpen them more often. Now that you know the main differences, you will have to look at your own lifestyle and see which one best fits you.
For those who have a hard time choosing (just like we used to!), KOTAI has redefined the Asian versus Western knife choice. We broke down what exactly makes Japanese and German knives good in their own respective ways, took the best of both, and combined it into a single, hybrid knife, so chefs no longer have to compromise.