the forging of the carbon (staining steel) culinary knife consumer, part 2: YOU HAD ME AT HELLO*

By 2011 consumer frustration demanded an improvement of and an increase in the choices of knives from the original Japanese stainless steel culinary knives first offered to western kitchens. The Japanese knife retailers had failed to properly educate their customers in the primary operational function of Japanese knives…which are designed to cut when you “pull” instead of “push” cutting common in western knife use. This fact and the limited inventory were at first easy to overlook because of the visual beauty of the knives and the exotic history promoting superior long lasting abilities.

The low yield steel formulations used to make culinary knife steel in Japan (stainless and staining/carbon steels (5) creates a hard brittle steel able to be ground very thin, resulting in the Japanese blade profiles (single and double) with the common finished sharp edges of 12 to 15 degrees. When first introduced outside of Japan, these culinary knives known as clad Hagane (hard cutting steel) with Jigane (soft steel) laminated in a San Mai (three layers) fashion had the same high RHc (6) numbers as is the norm in Japan.

High RHc numbers are not a problem in Japan because all things sharp (knives, saws, planes, and swords) cut on the “pull”. Pull cutting avoids the weakness of brittle steel which was becoming a problem in Western and European markets because we push when we cut. The brittleness of the steel made it easier to nick and chip when pushing forward to cut. Nicks and chips meant that knives had to be sharpened more often. Sharpening removes steel which naturally consumes the knife’s life. The increased frequency of sharpening was doing so at a more rapid rate. This problem contravened the original promise that the Japanese knife would last a lifetime delivering unparalleled performance.

Fortunately for the retailers sharpening services were rapidly turning them into knife sharpening experts. At last they were more than just sales people, which created a new authority for their customers to rely on. Increased frequency of sharpening meant more sales of new knives and income from sharpening fees.

Sharpening a Karimata (bifurcated carbon (staining) steel arrowhead) used for battle or hunting large game like Yama kujira (mountain whale / wild boar) which was prescribed as medicine during the Japanese land mammal prohibition from the end of the 7th century to the end of the 19th century.

No longer just sales people, but new cultural ambassadors of knives they all gained confidence and celebrity. While consumers felt that they were in more professional hands. The evolution of the retail relationships between shop and customers had evolved by turning a problem (nicking and chipping) into a status (knife sharpening expert). But they still needed more products to expand their inventory.

Ultimately the retailers decided the Japanese Industrial Fish Butchery knives would become culinary knives outside of Japan. After all, the retailers were now keepers of knowledge and cultural insight for their customers who trusted them. So the workhorses of Tsukiji Fish Market (now the Toyosu Market) became the new culinary knives from Japan for the western consumer (7).

Finally, retailers had knives which were traditional, and actually had history. It did not matter that they were trade tools not used in the home, no Gaikokujin (8) needed to know that. Interestingly the most common material of all of these knives was that they were made of carbon (staining) steel.

With inventory expanding, a new serious problem was disrupting the Japanese knife retail industry. Competition had begun between knife retailers within cities and nations around the world regarding who would have wholesales purchasing privileges from which Japanese maker. While the large manufacturers serviced all the big retail outlets directly. The medium and small makers forged their own Gaijin relationships. Which of course changed from city to city and country to country. Meaning makers who were sold in rival shops in one city or country where sold as brothers in other cities or countries. This proved very good business for the makers and this practice still continues.

15 to 20 years ago, Tokyo, Gifu and Osaka dominated as points of access for the Gaikokujin buyers of cutlery who came to Japan. Other cutlery relationships developed at the Ambient Trade Show in Frankfurt. At that time creating connections directly with Japanese makers meant you either knew how to operate in Japan or you had to use a comprador. A very few had family connections. No matter how business was beginning at that time the makers outnumbered the Gaijin buyers which is now no longer the case.

On the other hand the Japanese knife maker’s did not care who they worked with (once properly introduced) because it was all sales to them. To their credit with the odd exception most became loyal to the relationship with a given Gaijin business from a city or region. The number of different makers provided for the Gaijin buyers the chance to develop their stories of who they had chosen to work with? These storied foundations have over the years blossomed into the “maker collecting” aspect of recurring knife sales outside of Japan. Not to mention the new promotion of … the Japanese investment knife?

While the fish butchery knives of the nation had become culinary knives outside of Japan the majority are still being made of a steel which had been abandoned 50 years ago in the kitchens of the west. The reason for this was the material’s impact on food (enzymatic browning). This mattered little to the retailers who had lived their whole lives in a stainless steel knife world. Carbon was exotic to them and they would make it exotic for their customers.

It did not matter that while everywhere else in the world the development of culinary knives was an evolutionary process that defined their relationship to the foods of a region or a nation. These hearty industrial tools were a boon to inventory even if they were not found as a regular part of the Japanese home kitchen. It did not matter because carbon was cool and fish butchery knives had history. At the same time these new tools had new rituals of maintenance and everyone knew that only the old masters used carbon steel to make knives.

Butchery tools from around the world have developed as a result of trade and geographic conditions or in accordance with specific religious dictates. The development of the fish butchery knives of Japan were driven by dietary laws and food prohibitions from the year 675 to 1873 (9 & 10) which is unique. This was also true of Japan’s culinary knife traditions which were a response to the economic doubling policies of the 1960’s. These policies spawned the Three Treasures era (not to be confused with the Three Imperial Treasures (11) of Japan’s growth from the 10th largest GDP in 1960 to the 2nd largest economy after the USA by 1968 (12).

The Three Treasures : the Refrigerator, the Washing Machine and the Television defined the new foreign technological gods of personal home space in Japan. Like these three treasurers, culinary knives were examples of imported ideas embraced as confirmation of the realization of Japan becoming westernized (13). Unlike the rest of the world, the culinary cutlery tools of Japan were a rapid response to the food explosion and food stability of the post war nation, rather than a slow evolution which had first created them in their original nation. This new food diversity and social goal of westernization of the home required representative tools expressing the western idea. Choosing between the German “meat and potato” blade in contrast to the controlled cutting machine of France was easy. The French Sabatier became the template for the Gyuto and Petty culinary knives of Japan.

The suggestion that the double beveled culinary knives of Japan are old is a fraud. Best exemplified by the name the Japanese have given their Chef’s knife, Gyuto (most common transl. Cow sword). The problem is how could you name a tool after an animal that was illegal, morally incomprehensible and ethically unjustifiable to eat in Japan for 1,200 years. A prohibition ended at the close of the 19th century. Getting the society as a whole to accept this could only be possible and culturally acceptable as part of massive changes in the society and that was policy in post war Japan.

The only double beveled culinary knife which actually has history in Japan (having been used in the later part of the 19th century as a small version of its contemporary self) is the Na’kiri. The double beveled Bunko is a 20th century remodeling of the na’kiri which has had several tips styles (first; pointed, then a sheep’s hoof and now angled). The bunko, a na’kiri with a slight blade curve, was rebranded as the Santoku (the three virtue knife) as part of the suite of new exciting tools for the new postwar Japanese home. The bunko (a new fad in Gaikokujin retailing) has been given a new front angled end to blur the connection to the Santoku which it (the Santoku) was the original template of. However, none of this changes the fact that these knives (na’kiri, bunku and santoku) all evolved from the traditional Chinese cleaver (the Cai Dao).

No matter the knife or its origins, if it is made with carbon staining steel it will always impact a spectrum of foods. Carbon steel knives have always initiated a process of browning fruits, a number of vegetables and some seafood. Therefore carbon steel knives should be called “staining steel knives” in support of the vernacular “stainless steel knives”. Even if this goes against the general posture of the Japanese knife retailer’s; performance is a function of how a blade looks rather than what it does to the food it is used on!

Enzymatic browning is the discoloration that takes place when you cut various foods with carbon steel knives. Resulting in the visual negative effect of discoloration and nutritional value when interacting with sugars (brown to almost black (14). Enzymatic browning combined with micro corrosion (rust flakes) can also cause changes in flavor and taste (bitter, astringent or what some refer to as the taste of metal) reducing the quality of what has been cut besides creating melanin’s which while not toxic are not preferred. Even when you clad a portion of the blade in stainless steel carbon is still exposed and it still has an impact on the food it cuts. Carbon staining steel can also be impacted by the growth of Sulfate Reducing Bacteria (SDB), an inhabitant of soil (15) and some raw food materials.
Science aside, the most immature aspect of the new mythologizing of cool carbon staining steel is that it outperforms stainless steel. Again a game is played on the consumer because saying that carbon staining steel outperforms stainless is like saying because a car has four wheels all cars are the same (16). Comparisons of materials must be made based on a proper balanced matrix of specifications which could include, material composition, hardness and price to name just a few. All of which should be filtered through use and purpose of design in service of a task(s). It is both sloppy and uninformed to say one class of steel is better than another.

Thus the foundation of the Japanese carbon culinary knife enthusiast was created and their future written. What begins to emerge is that facts are not a major concern for this high value retailing opportunity. Why not?

part 3: THEY CALL IT A ROYALE WITH CHEESE (Pulp Fiction 1994)

NOTES

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5. LOW YIELD STEEL
www.cliftonsteel.com/knowledge-center/tensile-and-yield-strength
6. ROCKWELL HARDNESS SCALE
www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4877153/
7. An example of reframing the knife traditions of Japan to fit the new culinary retailing story outside of Japan.
JAPANESE KITCHEN KNIVES ESSENTIAL TECHNIQUES AND RECIPES / Hiromitsu Nozaki with Kate Klippensteen Photographs by Yasuo Konish 2009.
8. Gaikokujin /Gaijin In all cases it is the identification of not being Japanese. Gaikokujin is a more polite word for not being Japanese, Gaijin like
many things in Japan have a range of undertones to it, both respectful and derogatory. For example, in the Kanji script Gaijin reads as “outside human”.
9. The mythical reason for the dietary laws of Japan. The foundation myths of Japan describe the Sun Goddess Amaterasu-O-Mi-Kami making a “divine
decision” that five grains were to be the food for her subjects. For this purpose she specifically directed her subjects to eat two kinds of
millet (awa and hie), barley, and beans from dry paddies, rice from wet paddies and creatures from the sea (675 to 1873).
THE KOJIKI / trl. by Alex Struik
THE TALE OF THE HEIKE / trl. by Royall Tyler published by Penguin Group 2012
10. Why eating mammals was outlawed from the end of the 7th century to the end of the 19th century in Japan.
nippon.com/en/features/c03911/
www.kikkoman.co.jp/kiifc/foodculture/pdf_09/e_002_008.pdf
11. THE THREE SACRED TREASURES OF JAPAN
kazukonishimura.com/the-three-sacred-imperial-regalia/
12. JAPAN’S ECONOMIC RECORD OF GROWTH https://knoema.com/mhrzolg/historical-gdp-by-country-statistics-from-the-world-bank-1960-2019?country=Japan
13. Japanese Advanced Toilets as a Product of the Country’s Contact with the West: Marta Elzbieta Szczygiel/ PhD candidate, Graduate of Human
Sciences, Osaka University 1980 年代の日本に生まれた高機能トイレは、今や世界を席巻する勢いだ。 しかしそれは、19 世紀以
来の過剰な「西洋化」の産物かもしれない。
14. Correlation of the fractal enzymatic-browning rate with the temperature in mushroom, pear and apple slices/ LWT /Food Science and
Technology Volume65, January 2016, Pages 406-413.
journals.ashs.org/hortsci/view/journals/hortsci/45/8/article-p1150.xml
globalseafood.org/advocate/enzymes-in-seafood-part-1/
15. Characterizing Pitting Corrosion Caused by Long-Term Starving Sulfate Reducing Bacterium Surviving on Carbon Steel and Effects of
Surface Roughness /
CORROSION/ The Journal of Science & Engineering – Volume 70 Issue 8 August 1, 2014.
16. A testing review of many of the most common steels used to make knives in North America, Europe and Japan                                                                                                                                                                          knifesteelnerds.com/2020/05/01/testing-edge-retention-of-48-knife-steels 

FURTHER READING

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Namban Steel and Hizen Swords: a provocative hypothesis. Francisco A. B. Coutinho
Corrosion of Archaeological Artefact Made of Forged Iron/ B. Jegdic, S. Polic-Radovanovic, S. Ristic, A. Alil / Association of Metallurgical Engineers of Serbia 2012
Comparative Study of Patinas Formed on Statuary Alloys by Means of Electrochemical and Surface Analysis Techniques/ G.P. Cicileo, M. A. Crespo, R. M. Rosales Corrosion Science July 2003
From Night Soil to Washlet – The Material Culture of Japanese Toilets/ Published in: Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies, Vol. 16 Issue 3. 12.2016.
The Indian Ocean in World History / Milo Kearbey published by Routledge Taylor & Francis Group 2004
Metals in Past Societies A Global Perspective on Indigenous African Metallurgy / Shadreck Chirikure, Springer Science+Business Media 2015
Make all Sure – The Conservation and Restoration of Arms and Armour / Edited by Robert Douglas Smith, Basiliscoe Pres

*You Had Me At Hello” Jerry Maguire 1996