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Which to buy, nakiri or usuba?

The nakiri is a Japanese knife used primarily for preparing vegetables. The name says it all: 'na' means leaf, and 'kiri' refers to cutting. It’s a great knife to have in the home kitchen, particularly if you’re a lover of soups, salads and vegetables.

The literal translation of 'usuba' is thin blade - 'usui' is the Japanese for thin and 'ha', as in hamono, means blade. In Japan you're more likely to see an usuba in the hands of a professional chef. Along with the deba and yanagiba it's one of the three main knives used in a Japanese commercial kitchen. 

The nakiri and the usuba share a similar blade profile, with neither having any belly. This flat profile lends itself to accurate push-cutting and chopping on the board and controlled fine cutting in the hand. 

Here’s a quick summary of their differences: 


Nakiri  


  Usuba


Double bevel 

  
 Single bevel


Easy sharpening 

 
 Skilled sharpening


Thin blade, but reasonably robust 

  
 Delicate blade edge


Good volume processor,
better for cutting taller, harder items 

  
 The choice for fine and decorative cutting work


Lighter 

  
 Heavier


Suitable for both left and right-handers 

  
 Right-handed or left-handed


Commonly 16~18cm,
wa and western handles 

  
 Longer blades available,
 Japanese handles


Comparatively low-priced 

 
 Premium knives can command premium prices

 

So, which to buy?

The usuba is a 'kataha' blade - single grind, flat on one side (actually slightly concave to aid in food release), with a Japanese handle. 

Therefore a major point of difference between the usuba and the nakiri is sharpening. It's fair to say most people will not find an usuba easy to sharpen well and outsourcing can add up.

Traditionally the usuba is the first knife the Japanese trainee chef must master - vegetables are cheap, and it's only when a chef's knife skills are honed on vegetables that they can be let loose on meat and fish, where knife skills more directly affect profit. 

To get the most out of it the usuba is a knife the non-professional user will want to use slowly. People who use an usuba well and for higher volumes will have had many, many hours of practise.

If you’re after superior sharpness and cutting feel, can handle a longer, heavier blade, if you want to master Japanese cuisine and are willing to adapt to a traditional tool, if sharpening isn’t a factor (and we're pretty sure it is), then an usuba may be the right choice.

One final observation regarding the purchase of an usuba: it may not be the most practical knife for the home but the usuba is simply a beautiful object in and of itself. Unnecessary for most of us but highly desirable.

The nakiri is also a vegetable specialist, for those of us with less specialized needs. Like the usuba it isn't used for fish or meat so at least one other knife will be needed if you're not a vegetarian.

The advantage of the nakiri lies in its versatility. It does pretty much everything an usuba will do so you can happily practise your Japanese foody skills, at the same time it is easier to sharpen than the usuba and generally not quite as delicate. It will likely spend more time chopping on a board so sharpening is again a consideration. A sharp nakiri is a real joy in the kitchen. 

A nakiri will be lighter than an usuba of the same length due to the overall thinness of the blade, weighing as much as forty per cent less at a similar length.

Price-wise a nakiri will almost always be cheaper. While there are excellent nakiri knives to be found - both hand-forged and factory produced - an usuba is a step up in quality and therefore price. (Inexpensive nakiris abound. As a mainstay professional tool a lower quality usuba won't find many buyers.)

If you regularly need to process volumes of leaf vegetables then a nakiri will be a rewarding, easy-to-use knife that will allow you to try your hand at sengiri and katsuramuki when the inspiration takes hold. Love coleslaw? You'll appreciate a nakiri. 

If your diet includes a lot of vegetables, soups and salads the nakiri can function as a primary knife. For everyday family cooking we vote for the nakiri as the sensible choice.

Looking for a good nakiri? Have a look at our selection here.