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Knife is a very essential part of cooking whether it is used in a chef’s kitchen or in your home. When you are shopping for a new knife, it’s likely that you will come across two main types of knives: German and Japanese. There are many more different types of knives available besides these two. Whether Japanese or German, each type of knife has been influenced by its culture. However, it is safe to say that these two are the most prevalent and worthy of understanding.
The Japanese believe in having a perfect tool for an explicit purpose, and as such have many specific knives for specific tasks. Japan is the land of long traditions, where hundreds of years of accumulated knowledge and experience are passed down from master to apprentice, from teacher to pupil to form the knife-making industry we know today. Japanese chef knives are fashioned by techniques that were originally developed for making katana (samurai swords) over 1000 years ago. The shift from sword crafting to knife crafting began in the 1850’s when Commodore Matthew Perry’s “black ships” (steam boat) anchored in Edo (Tokyo) Bay, and demanded the emperor to open Japan’s long isolated ports to Western trade.
However, it wasn’t until after World War II that knife making in Japan really begin its magnificent journey. When the United States occupied Japan after World War II, General MacArthur banned the production and possession of katana. The ban forced large numbers of highly skilled craftsmen to turn their skills and attention to crafting kitchen knives. Although, the sword ban was lifted after seven years, there was still a limit placed on production, causing the craftsmen making very few katana a year. However, the legacy and unforgettable sharpness of the katana still lives on in the heart of the kitchen even 1200 years later.
Japanese knives for the most part have no bolster. The bolster of a knife is a thick junction between the handle and the blade which provides a smooth transition from the blade to the handle. It strengthens the knife adding durability. Since the handle is lighter than the blade, the bolster contributes to better balance and improves control. Also, the tang of Japanese knives vary based on the knife maker. Tang is the part that connects the blade with the handle. Japanese knives contain mostly hidden or partial tang.
The German value versatility and durability in their culinary efforts and therefore have designed knives that are good at many different undertakings. Solingen, a city in Germany is a German knife mecca and that is where the history of the major and more popular German knives are stated. The storied history of German knife making begins in Solingen around 1814, which is the second largest city in the Bergisches Land. The nickname of the city is the “City of Blades”. Medieval sword makers put it on the map and lent it a reputation that has stood the test of time. At the time, Solingen was the place to go in Germany for a sword. Just like the Japanese, once the Germans had perfected swords, they turned their hand to knife making. Even today, Solingen is still the knife capital of Germany. German knives usually have a full-tang and a bolster. Full tang means that the knife is one solid piece and the metal of the blade starts from the tip and continues to the end of the handle with the two handle pieces pinned on to the blade, one on each side. This is the strongest of the tang types.
In conclusion, everything depends on the needs and preferences of the person buying the knife. Japanese knives are slim, razor-sharp, and lightweight so they are ideal for precise work. The harder steel means getting a very sharp edge is possible that can go longer between sharpening. However, the delicacy of the blade and the hardness of the steel make it more prone to chipping and cracking. On the other hand, German knives are heavier, thicker and the weight and softer steel make the knives more durable. Fundamentally, German vs. Japanese is not that important, especially since the gap between the styles of knives is diminishing. Some German knives are now sharpened to a more acute angle while using new alloys have improved the durability of Japanese knives. In the end, each knife has its own strengths and weaknesses. It’s not that one style of knife is better than the other, it’s just a matter of use and preference.
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