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How to sharpen your homemade sushi skills

by Melinda Joe

“Why don’t you come around to the other side of the counter?” sushi chef Junichi Onuki chirped from behind the bar. He laid down the sharp yanagi-ba knife he’d been using to slice fillets of sea bream and beckoned in a gesture of welcome.

I’d asked Onuki, owner and chef of Isana Sushi Bar in Tokyo’s Nishi-Azabu district, to teach me about cutlery and other kitchen utensils in the sushi chef’s toolbox. Although I’d toured many professional kitchens before, no one had ever invited me behind the bar at a sushi restaurant. After years of sitting at sushi counters as a customer, it felt both thrilling and mildly transgressive.

Onuki had arranged his workstation for me exactly as he would during dinner service. On the immaculate white cutting board sat a yanagi-ba — the long, thin knife used for slicing fish — alongside a fine-grained sharkskin wasabi grater and ceramic pots filled with homemade nikiri soy sauce and ana-tsume sauce for eel. In another jar were tweezers for removing pin bones, a perforated spoon for scooping up ikura (salmon roe), a small grater for zesting yuzu citrus, and a tiny wooden brush used to sprinkle the fragrant yuzu rind onto pieces of sashimi.

“This is the knife everyone sees,” he said, pointing to the yanagi-ba. It is the blade that junior chefs graduate to, a sign that one has become a fully-fledged sushi chef. Apprentices commonly spend years scaling and gutting fish before being allowed to fillet them, but slicing the fish in front of guests is done exclusively by the head chef. Onuki reckons that the job requires a minimum of five years’ training in order to “learn the anatomy of each type of fish.”

The knife for filleting fish is called a deba, which has a wider blade and a pointed tip. A smaller version of the deba is the kodeba, used for filleting small fish such as sardines, while the thicker ōdeba is used to cut through bones. Japanese chefs peel and julienne vegetables with the exceptionally thin, flat-edged usuba knife. A long, sword-like knife called a maguro-bōchō is used especially for cutting up whole tuna.

Onuki stores his cutlery on a wooden rack according to size, with the largest knives on the bottom. In the light, the angled edges of the blades gleamed brightly, reminding me of the silver-white underbellies of sharks. Most Japanese knives are made of carbon steel and single-beveled, and therefore thinner than Western chefs’ knives, allowing more precise control to help preserve the delicate texture of fresh fish.

Although Masamoto is one of the best-known brands, Onuki recommends a number of manufacturers, such as Hide, Nenohi, Yasuyuki and Sugimoto. The next day, I felt inspired to run out to buy a deba from the knife shop Tsubaya in Kappabashi, the area of Taito Ward near Ueno and Asakusa that specializes in kitchen apparatus. But first, I remembered, I would have to learn how to fillet a fish. Maybe I’ll be ready in another five years.

Tsubaya knife shop: www.e288.jp

Melinda Joe is an American journalist in Tokyo and a certified wine and sake professional. She blogs at tokyodrinkingglass.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter @MelindaJoe.