Japan is famous for its sharp and beautiful kitchen knives. Yet the huge number of styles can confuse even the most experienced blade enthusiasts. If you are new to Japanese knives, there are a few essential types that you should learn about. One of these is the yanagiba.
The yanagiba is a Japanese knife that is used to cut fish for sushi and sashimi dishes. Its long and narrow blade with a single bevel edge can create the elegant slices needed for Japanese cuisine. The yanagiba is a close relative of other Japanese knives such as the takohiki, the fuguhiki, and even the sujikihi.
In the upcoming sections, we will go into great detail about the yanagiba, its features, and its uses. We will compare it to other similar Japanese knives, then give you tips on how to choose and care for a yanagiba.
Table of contents
What is a yanagiba?
The yanagiba is one of the fundamental knives in traditional Japanese cooking. Along with santoku, deba, and usuba, the yanagiba bocho is a key part of any Japanese chef’s knife set. Its purpose is to prepare sushi and sashimi by cutting fish fillets thinly and precisely.
Yanagiba knives are also capable of removing the skin and fillets from fish carcasses.
As you will see later, the yanagiba is designed to make easy and smooth cuts through various types of fish. While using it, you will notice the blade sliding effortlessly with little resistance. The sharp edge of the yanagiba slices fish without damaging the texture, giving you smooth and exquisite pieces. Presentation is a crucial aspect of Japanese meals, so it is worth investing in a well-built yanagiba.
The word “yanagiba” means “willow leaf blade” in Japanese. An alternative name in Japanese is “shobu”, which means “iris leaf”. These translations give no clues about the knife’s uses. But considering how similar the yanagiba blade looks to both leaves, these names make perfect sense.
The yanagiba’s design
As is typical with traditional Japanese knives and swords, the yanagiba knife features a single bevel blade. On one of the knife faces you will see a very clear ridge where the blade angles sharply down ― this is the single bevel edge. The reason behind this is geometric. If you keep one of the knife’s faces flat, you can produce a much finer edge with a smaller angle by sharpening it from only one side (see the diagram above).
There are downsides to having a single bevel blade. Whereas a double bevel edge allows you to make direct and straight cuts, an asymmetric single bevel edge forces you to make more oblique cuts. Overall it is trickier to use. Additionally, left- and right-handed cooks cannot use the same single bevel knife. No matter, this type of razor-sharp edge is needed for the delicate preparation of sushi.
The yanagiba’s blade shape is not very different from that of a gyuto. It has a mostly flat edge that curves up gently in the tip section, plus a spine that curves gradually from the blade’s base. The knife’s spine and edge meet to form a very sharp point. What distinguishes this knife style is its proportions. The blade can measure anywhere from 21 cm to 36 cm (9-14″), though is only around 3-4 cm (1-1.5″) thick at its widest point. Hence, the yanagiba has a very slim look and resembles a mini sword.
We mentioned earlier that one face of a single bevel knife is flat. While that may be true of some other knives, it is not exactly the case for the yanagiba. The back face of the yanagiba curves inward slightly (i.e. is concave). The curvature minimizes the surface area of the blade that touches the fish and therefore reduces the likelihood of sticking. The low friction of the yanagiba blade enables chefs to cut fish accurately without damaging the texture.
There are other methods to lower the friction of blades: Santoku knives often have a Granton edge. Cheese knives have large holes in their blades. Both designs have the same purpose as the yanagiba’s concave face: to decrease the blade’s surface area.
The handle is not a special feature of the yanagiba but is still an important component. After all, it’s the only part that you (should) touch, and if it feels uncomfortable, you will not use the knife effectively.
As with most modern Japanese knives, you can choose between a traditional “wa” handle and a more ergonomic western handle. Wa handles are compact and have round or octagonal profiles made of wood. Some chefs are happy to sacrifice a bit of comfort for the intimate feel of a traditional wooden handle.
The handle style is a personal choice and does not affect the knife’s performance.
The yanagiba is a part of the sashimi knife family. As such, it is closely related to a few other Japanese knives that are great for cutting fish. Actually, the similarities are so large that the following knives can be considered as variations of the yanagiba rather than separate knives.
“Takohiki” roughly translates to “octopus puller” from Japanese and is a version of the yanagiba that is especially good for cutting the tentacles of an octopus. The rectangular blade is useful for scooping up pieces of fish or sushi and putting them onto a plate. This rectangular style is popular in the Tokyo region of Japan, while the original yanagiba is preferred in Osaka.
Like the yanagiba, the takohiki has a slender and long blade with a single bevel edge.
“Fuguhiki” roughly translates to “blowfish puller” from Japanese and looks very similar to the normal yanagiba but is a bit more slender and flexible. The fuguhiki is useful in situations where you need extremely thin slices of very soft fish (like a blowfish). The slightly bendy blade can adapt to many shapes of fish. It too features a single bevel.
The sujihiki is not a sashimi knife but can perform most of the yanagiba’s jobs well. It has an almost identical blade shape, though a key distinction is that the sujihiki has a double bevel edge. “Sujihiki” means “flesh slicer” which perfectly describes this knife. The sujihiki can cut fish as well as poultry and red meat.
You can think of the sujihiki as the double bevel version of the yanagiba, or perhaps just a more western version.
How to use a yanagiba
The yanagiba is longer on average than a standard chef knife so is a little harder to control. To help handle the knife, chefs generally grip the bottom part of the blade with the index finger and thumb of their dominant hand. Alternatively, they can place their index finger on the knife’s spine.
To cut with a yanagiba, you must pay attention to the bevel angle and try to slice the fish through the centerline of the blade. Once you have decided the thickness of your slices, hold the piece of fish steady with your non-dominant hand and cut into it at the correct (oblique) angle. With a well-sharpened yanagiba, the knife should glide through the flesh without any sawing motions.
Once you have cut a slice, move the knife along and cut more. As the video above demonstrates, even by cutting at an angle, the yanagiba can produce very clean and flat slices. You can also cut a fish fillet horizontally. Place your free hand flat on top of the fillet and pull the knife along through the fish. Be careful not to pull the knife up towards your hand. This method will give you longer slices than the first technique.
At this stage, you can serve the fish as it is or cut it up further. If you plan to make sushi, you will need to cut very thin strips from the slices.
The yanagiba is a favorite of Japanese chefs for slicing boneless pieces of fish for use in sushi and sashimi. Common types of fish include:
- Sea Bass
Sashimi is a meal of raw fish (or meat) pieces that are eaten with soy, wasabi, and other condiments, using chopsticks. A meal of sushi comprises small chunks of fish and/or vegetables wrapped in rice and seaweed. This can be enjoyed with soy and wasabi sauce like sashimi. Sushi and sashimi are staples of modern Japanese cuisine and are very popular around the world.
Yanagiba vs other sushi knives
|Name meaning||“Willow leaf blade”||“Octopus puller”||“Blowfish puller”||“Flesh slicer”|
|Blade shape||A mostly flat edge with a slight curve. The spine curves gently too. The yanagiba has a very sharp point.||Rectangular with a flat tip.||Very similar to the yanagiba’s shape, but a thinner blade.||Very similar to the yanagiba’s shape.|
|Uses||Precise cutting of fish fillets.||Slicing of fish, especially octopus.||Very thin and delicate slices of fish.||Thin slices of both fish and meat.|
|Bevel||Mainly single||Single||Single||Single or double|
|Handle||Usually a traditional wa handle||A traditional wa handle||A traditional wa handle||A wa or western handle|
How to choose a yanagiba
Before you can buy your yanagiba, there are several things to bear in mind:
Do you like the standard yanagiba or would you prefer one of its variations? If you like the look of a square-tip knife, opt for the takohiki; If you plan to make very delicate cuts of fish, you can try a fuguhiki; If you want a more versatile tool that can deal with meat and fish, perhaps choose a sujihiki instead of a sashimi knife. The table above should give you some ideas.
Another important part of the knife is the handle. As we stated earlier, the Japanese wa handle will not fit your hand quite as well as the contoured western style. However, some chefs like the slimmer wa handle that has an excellent feel. Note that the traditional sashimi knives are mostly available with wa handles. The sujihiki can have both styles.
According to Japanese tradition, original sashimi knives are forged from carbon steel which is very hard. Carbon steel knives can keep their sharp edges for long periods. However, their blades are vulnerable to rusting and chipping if you fail to take good care of them.
Material-wise, the other option for a yanagiba blade is stainless steel. Only in more recent times have Japanese manufacturers started selling stainless steel knives. These tend to be cheaper, tougher, and have anti-rust properties. Unfortunately, stainless steel blade loses its edge faster. The blade material is a functional choice, but also a matter of taste. Do you like the authentic look of high carbon steel or the shine of stainless steel?
No matter which style, shape, and materials you like, you must find an affordable knife. Luckily, the internet gives you access to countless sellers from all continents so that you can find a knife within your budget. The internet is also a great resource for finding the best specialist knife shops and hardware stores in your area.
Since the yanagiba and its variations are specialist Japanese knives, they are not made for absolute beginners. Therefore, you can expect to pay $200-300+ for the higher quality models from established brands used by Japanese chefs. If that is out of your price range, some yanagiba knives are available for under $100 online.
A knife’s price usually reflects the needs of its user. If you are a beginner chef, focus on testing your skills with an inexpensive blade. Only when you improve significantly is it worth investing in a knife that matches your ability.
How to care for a yanagiba
Cleaning & storage
When you own a yanagiba, it will frequently touch raw fish. To avoid contaminating other areas of your kitchen, wash your yanagiba knife and cutting board soon after use. Scrub the length of the blade with a soapy sponge to kill the bacteria from uncooked fish.
Dry the blade and return it to its storage location ― a magnetic knife rack is fine for a yanagiba. However, most drawers and knife blocks may not be large enough to hold such a long knife. Another good method is to store the yanagiba in its own sheath or box and then place it in a cupboard.
Using the yanagiba effectively requires a lot of experience plus a very steady hand. In the same way, sharpening the fine single bevel edge is not an easy task for beginners. The best tool for sharpening this knife is a whetstone; here is a thorough guide to using a whetstone.
Unless you have great confidence in your sharpening skills, your best option is to take your yanagiba to an expert knifemaker to have it sharpened. Otherwise, you could harm the knife’s beautiful edge.
Feast on the delights of Japanese cuisine!
Before you can become a master sushi chef, you need a good yanagiba to work with. Hopefully, this article has helped you to decide which style you might like.
If you are unsure about buying such a specialized knife, you can always start with a good-quality chef knife instead. This is a perfect tool for making sushi as well as most other dishes.