Sushi is often called an art form, and for a good reason. It’s a positively ancient traditional Japanese dish that has become popular worldwide in relatively recent times. First, let me explain some misconceptions about sushi. It does not automatically imply raw fish, as the stereotype would have you believe. Instead, sushi refers to a type of short-grain vinegared rice prepared with sugar or salt and is accompanied by different ingredients, some of which can be raw seafood. Raw fish is just one of the most popular combinations with sushi, and the rice used in the creation of this dish goes by the name “Shari” or “Sumeshi” in Japanese. Thinly sliced meats (including raw fish) are called “Sashimi,” which is widely regarded as the basis for the stereotype until the terms were eventually conflated in Western markets.
To understand and work with sushi, you’ll need to know the proper terminology for each ingredient. The rice is called “sushi-meshi,” the specially designed, high-quality, unflavored seaweed wrappers are called “Nori,” and the main ingredients placed inside the rice (usually some variety of fish) are called “Gu.” While sushi is generally had with condiments, you can also have it without any, and it tastes just as good. Sushi even has a lot of health benefits! It’s a pretty balanced food in terms of macronutrients, and the “Gu” adds to the natural micronutrients present in the vinegar, rice, and seaweed. And yet, I don’t recommend having sushi every day or even very often because it does have its issues. Despite what your nearby sushi place might want you to believe, there is such a thing as too much sushi.
Classic or traditional sushi is made by placing a layer of the aforementioned vinegared rice on sheets of unflavored Nori. Nori was created for sushi; however, it has been used as a snack once it’s appropriately flavored. Thinly sliced vegetables and(or) meats are placed in this rice, and the whole thing is rolled and shaped into an appealing round shape. The resulting roll is then chopped into sushi-sized individual pieces that are then consumed. Most of the ingredients are raw or boiled since sushi doesn’t traditionally use a lot of external flavors.
Reading this article might make the process of making sushi seem pretty simple; it’s only easy if you know what you’re doing and if you have the correct tools, implements, and materials. Quite obviously, you need the ingredients. But you also need a bunch of tools to make the best sushi you can. The scope of this article isn’t enough to fully cover all of those tools, so I’ll keep my focus on the subject, i.e., sushi knives. So, naturally, the first question you might consider is, “What makes a sushi knife different from a regular knife?”
There are many classifications for Japanese sushi knives, and while all of them are valid in their own right, a beginner doesn’t need that information and will most likely feel overwhelmed. So I’ll break it down to more straightforward classifications and terminologies in this article. For the sake of concision and simplicity, we’ll be classifying sushi knives into two broad categories: Yanagi-ba, and Sujhiki. A disclaimer before we get into the reviews: the information about Yanagi-bas and Sujhikis that you’ll find online might not seem to corroborate or match each other. This is mainly because these two types of knives are commonly colloquially referred to as “sushi knives” in the Western world, leading to more conflation and more difficulty in understanding.
That being said, let’s get into a comparison between the two types. As for similarities, both have to be made from particular metal types. A Yanagi-ba needs a high-carbon steel blade, while a Sujhiki blade uses stronger but heavier types like Damascus or stainless steel. But that’s about where the similarities end and the differences are many.
First off, Yanagi-ba literally translates to “willow blade.” This fact should give you some idea of what it’s meant to be. They’re longer, highly specialized, very sharp, and very, very thin. One side of the blade is concave, while the other is beveled, allowing for easy and clean cuts that do not tear the meat at all. After all, the entire point of a Yanagi-ba is to leave smooth, clean, even cuts. It’s meant to be used in a “pulling” form rather than in a pushing/cutting downwards form, which might feel a little unnatural to Western audiences. Beginners, in general, may have a lot of trouble with a proper Yanagi-ba since it requires experience and skill as a pre-requisite. You can think of a Yanagi-ba as having a much lower skill floor but a much higher skill ceiling than a Sujhiki.
Speaking of Sujhiki blades, let’s get into an accurate description of them. The term “Sujhiki” can be interpreted as “muscle cutter,” and that’s the point. While still long knives, they’re usually shorter than a Yanagi-ba while being a lot stronger and more resilient. They’re thicker overall, with less focus on specialization and more on the strong and hard cuts required to separate the muscle from the meat. They may not have been designed with sushi in mind, but they sure can do the job. While the cuts may not be as clean and even as those produced by using a Yanagi-ba, it’s a lot harder to mess up simple tasks with a Sujhiki, especially if you have prior experience with Western knives. Sujhikis are a lot closer to Western knives, with a dual-blade and generally simpler long-term care.
Some people (usually professionals or highly passionate Japanese cuisine enthusiasts) might want to get one of both knives; a Yanagi and a Sujhiki. However, the average person does not need both. I’d recommend a Sujhiki to most beginners who have any prior experience with Western knives. For anyone who’d instead go in for a Yanagi-ba and face the steeper learning curve for better sushi cuts, I will still be including Yanagi-bas in this list. Speaking of which, let’s get into the meat (or rather, the raw fish) of this article.
- Yoshihiro Shiroko Yanagi Kasumi Ba – $235
Yoshihiro is a very well-known brand that makes many different types of Japanese knives. They follow traditional Japanese design cues, with a simplistic but elegant look and a significant focus on function over form. For the sizeable price, you get a very clean and elegant handmade Yanagi-ba. The handmade handle is a traditional Japanese-style Magnolia wood. This is not a low-maintenance blade, however. You’ll need to regularly oil it to prevent oxidation and sharpen it with a Japanese water whetstone, the kinds which are 6000+ grit. You’ll also have to be very careful about the materials you can use this blade because it should never be used on hard substances or even frozen foods. This blade will provide you with some of the cleanest and most even cuts you could achieve for all your vigilance.
- Mercer Culinary Asian Collection Yanagi-ba – $34
For a much cheaper price, you can get this lower-maintenance Mercer Culinary Yanagi-ba. It is treated with more modern methods and undergoes mass production, so the attention-to-detail and overall feel won’t compare to the Yoshihiro Yanagi, but this is also a fraction of the price and still performs very well. The handle is a similar traditional style, and the blade will still need to be sharpened to maintain peak performance. However, it has a very nice, strong weight to it, and an experienced chef should still be able to make immaculate cuts with this blade.
- Dalstrong Yanagi-ba Phantom Series – $80
One of my personal favorite knife manufacturers, Dalstrong’s products, comes at a slight premium but is well worth it. Dalstrong has a history of spectacular design while still maintaining or improving upon the functionality, and they continue that trend with this Yanagi-ba. With a low-maintenance pakkawood handle and a full tang, this knife sits very well in hand is a joy to use. It’s an impressive knife and a fantastic deal at this price.
- Kyocera Advanced Ceramic Kyotop Sashimi – $350
This ceramic Yanagi-ba is the most expensive knife on this list, and for good reason. Kyocera is a highly innovative company looking to push the envelope and introduce newer technologies while still maintaining ancient traditions. Likely, the most significant change you’ll notice in this knife is that the blade is ceramic. Don’t worry; it’s not just any regular ceramic; it’s Kyocera’s proprietary hot-isostatic pressed zirconia ceramic. Kyocera is entirely resistant to rusting and acids even though these have edge retention up to 15x more than steel blades. However, these can still be damaged by slicing into hard substances like bone or frozen foods, and no matter how much you treat ceramic in a lab, it will always be more brittle than steel. This means that this blade is not very flexible and is instead more likely to shatter if you drop it.
- Kai Wasabi Black Yanagi-ba – $44
The next addition to this list is another yanagi-ba, this time for a very reasonable price. The Kai Wasabi Black Yanagi-ba is made with high-carbon stainless steel, and the handle is a polypropylene blend rather than the traditional wood. This does mean that the blade is easier to take care of, even if it doesn’t feel as good in the hand. Apart from that, there’s not much to say about this blade. It’s a very simplistic design and a high-quality product for a very good price.
- JapanBargain 1560 Yanagi-ba – $38
Lying on the longer side of the Yanagi spectrum, this one’s also a little heavy and has some heft to it. However, the weight is nice once you get used to it, because it’s very balanced. With a full tang and a traditional wooden handle with an attractive white texture on it, this knife sits very well in larger hands. The large blade makes this knife more versatile, though you still shouldn’t cut harder substances or frozen foods with this knife.
- TUO Cutlery TC0406P Yanagi-ba – $130
Again, a more expensive knife than some of the others on this list. However, if you have a real interest in this field, you should expect most of the higher quality equipment to be a little more expensive than you may think. That being said, this is a very easy Yanagi-ba to recommend to just about anyone. The first thing you’ll notice when you pick up this knife is that the handle feels different. That’s because it’s made of ebony, which is a very dense and luxurious wood.
- Tojiro DP Sujhiki Knife – $130
Matching the previous review on this list at price, this one’s a Sujhiki knife instead. Tojiro calls the knife a “slicer,” and they’re pretty on-point with that description. Since this is a Sukhiji knife, you can use this for many purposes, unlike you would with a Yanagi-ba. Also, it’s ambidextrous, meaning it can be used with either the left or the right hand. The handle’s design is a big departure from the more traditional Japanese styling that most of the other knives on this stick to. Instead, choose a fusion style with a Japanese-style circular plastic bolster followed by a more Western – perhaps German-style moulded, shaped handle.
- Cangshan J Series 1020090 X-7 Sashimi Knife – $136
Before I even get into the review for this knife, I’d like to point out that you will find a very similar-looking knife on Amazon; I believe that the images Cangshan used are identical. However, that knife differs from the one we’re talking about. This is the more “updated” version of that knife, with a couple of weighting differences and some quality control improvements. There are a few tricks Cangshan pulls with the sheath. The first one is that it’s made of beautiful walnut wood, and feels wonderfully smooth. Secondly, small magnets inside the sheath lock the actual blade in place so it doesn’t accidentally slip out or cause any unwanted slicing.
- Global G-47 Sashimi Knife – $150
Likely the most unique-looking knife on this list, the Global G-47 is a beautiful molybdenum stainless steel unibody knife with a very eye-catching handle. The uniqueness of the handle isn’t just for design purposes; there’s a lot of thought that went into the engineering of this handle too. You see, the handle is hollow and filled with a precise amount of synthetic sand to create the perfect balance. The blade, on the other hand, is very sharp, as you’d expect. It’s also supposed to be very resilient, with very high edge retention. However, I’d still recommend you familiarize yourself with blade sharpening if you want to keep using this knife at peak performance for a very long time.