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During my first days of apprenticeship in a traditional Japanese restaurant, I was surprised by the noticeable lack of electrical outlets on the walls of the small Osaka kappo eatery. This scarcity soon proved not to be a problem given the dearth of small electric appliances that dominate professional kitchens in the West. In fact there was not a single electric appliance, save the refrigerator. No Cuisinart, no Braun mixer, no Buffalo chopper, no Robocoup mixer . . .

Cutting-edge tools of the trade RICK LAPOINTE PHOTOS

No, behind the counter of my small kaiseki restaurant, raw food materials were peeled, chopped, sliced, minced and julienned the old-fashioned way — by hand. In Japan, even the most menial task is pounded out by hand. This is done to sharpen up your skills as well as your knife — the habit of “ude o migaku” (lit. polishing one’s arm) is the measure of an exceptional cook. This ability to produce detailed work by hand stands out as one of the main differences between young cooks in the West and young cooks and apprentices on this side of the Pacific.

Long before — sometimes years before — chefs in Japan are allowed to break down and filet fish, they are required to hone their skills on daikon, carrots, cucumbers and mushrooms. When the opportunity to handle fish finally arrives, young cooks are more than ready to make the precise cuts required so the sashimi may be presented beautifully, a feast for the eyes and for the palate.

There are three basic knives (hocho) used for cutting in the Japanese kitchen.

Usuba-bocho — This is the first knife used by apprentices in the kitchen. Literally “thin blade,” this knife is used for general cutting of vegetables and other nonfish or -meat items. It is the knife used for the famous katsura-muki daikon peeling. Like all Japanese knives, the usuba is sharpened on just one side, the major difference between Japanese and European knives. In Eastern Japan, the usuba is squared off at the end, while in Western Japan the knife is rounded.

Deba-bocho — The second knife used by young cooks, often soon after the usuba is somewhat mastered, is the deba. This “fat blade” is used to fillet fish and occasionally to break down meat when a Western knife is not to be had. The real measure of a good cook is his ability to use this knife well. Profit and loss are at stake when filleting fish — meat left on the bone is money down the drain. Even in their leisure time, cooks emphasize the importance of mastering the deba; there is a traditional enka song that goes, “Wrap your one knife [deba-bocho] in a cloth and set out as a journeyman cook to polish your arm.”

Sashimi-bocho, or Yanagi-bocho — The sashimi knife, also called the “willow blade,” is the final knife to be mastered. The yanagi is used in front of the customer to display one’s skill at the different cuts used in presenting sashimi. If one has really learned to use the usuba and deba well, then using the yanagi comes naturally. In a macho attempt to show off, many cooks use very long — sometimes more than 30 cm long — yanagi blades. Showmanship aside, it is quite a sight seeing a long yanagi used gracefully, and it certainly instills a sense of respect for the cook wielding the knife. This knife is also made differently in eastern and western Japan. In the east, the blade is squared-off at the end, while in the west it is tapered to a point. Just by seeing a chef’s knife, one can tell on which side of Japan he trained.

One of the most tedious everyday cuts made in restaurants that serve sashimi is called katsura-muki. In katsura-muki, one peels daikon ever so thinly so that it can then be cut crosswise to become ken — the thin as thread garnish used as a base for sashimi to be presented. The quality — thinness and crispness — of a restaurant’s ken is often the measure of the establishment. Young cooks buy daikon with their own money and practice peeling the vegetable as thinly as possible. The resulting ken is not put to waste but used in the makanai, or family meal, that the cooks and chefs eat together at the end of the shift. One of the most popular ways to serve this ken is as a fresh daikon salad.

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Daikon salad

A cook shows his prowess with an usuba-bocho as he makes daikon salad.

The easiest way to dress a basic daikon salad is to just douse it in sashimi-joyu (soy sauce for sashimi). On days when there is more time to spend beefing up this salad, carrots, kaiware (daikon sprouts), enoki mushrooms and benitade (water pepper), among other things, are added, and a dressing is whipped up to top it all.

4 cups daikon, katsura-muki or julienne
1 cup carrot, katsura-muki or julienne
50 grams kaiware
50 grams enoki mushroom
20 grams benitade

Dressing

1 teaspoon fresh wasabi
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon mustard
1/2 cup salad oil
1 teaspoon usukuchi shoyu
1 egg yolk salt to taste

1) Cut daikon and carrot either katsura-muki-style or fine julienne. Cut kaiware and enoki into 2 cm pieces and toss with daikon, carrot and benitade. Refrigerate until serving.

2) In a small stainless steel or glass bowl, combine egg yolk, wasabi, lemon juice and mustard. Whisk until egg yolk changes in color from dark yellow to a lighter, clearer yellow. Add a teaspoon of oil, whisking to form an emulsion and then begin to slowly drizzle in remaining oil while continuing to whisk.

3) When dressing has reached desired consistency, add shoyu and salt to taste.

4) Dress salad just before serving. Serves four.

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