Japanese knives are a mystery to most Western home cooks. Their names speak about tradition, but in a foreign and strange way. The same way when someone tells you about a long-standing tradition in their family that has nothing to do with how you do things at home.

Yet that doesn’t need to be the case. Japanese knives, along with German, French, and American counterparts, are some of the best knives in the world. 
It’s true that some Japanese knives are deeply traditional and make little sense to a Western person like you and me. Others—like the santoku knife—can be a surprisingly practical culinary tool for your day-to-day cooking.

The santoku (also called the santoku bōchō or bunka bōchō) is a versatile kitchen knife from Japan. Think of it as the Japanese cousin of the European and American chef’s knife.

The santoku is an all-purpose Japanese kitchen knife used for a variety of cutting techniques by professionals and home cooks. This includes, but is not limited to, chopping, slicing, dicing, and mincing.

The three most common uses for a santoku knife include:

  1. Cutting red meat, produce, and seafood.
  2. Slicing, dicing, or mincing vegetables, fruits, cheeses, and nuts.
  3. Chopping fresh herbs and mincing garlic.

As a rule of thumb, avoid using a santoku knife if you’re cutting through meat with bones, as it could damage the blade; as well as if you’re peeling produce, as the santoku is simply too big of a knife to give you the precision you’re looking for.

Consider investing in a santoku if you’re looking for a knife that’s just as multi-functional as a chef’s knife, but is also smaller and lighter weight.

How Do You Use a Santoku Knife?

If you’re used to using a chef’s knife, the santoku will require a different cutting technique. Chef’s knives have a slightly curved blade that allows you to cut food in a rocking motion. 

With a santoku, you chop food by lifting the knife off of the cutting board, then pushing it down and away from yourself as you use the blade to cut the food.

This technique of using a santoku knife with quick and intentional pushes has its benefits but takes some getting used to. Perhaps the biggest benefit is precision. 

Since santoku knives are smaller, sharper, and lighter, this allows you to produce thinner slices of food. It can really make a difference when slicing salmon, for example.

Though the santoku looks like a highly traditional knife, it’s actually a modern knife that originated in post-war Japan in the 1940s. 

It sits right at the middle ground between Japanese knife-making tradition and Western culinary tools.

Why Is It Called a Santoku Knife?

In Japanese, santoku means “three virtues” or “three uses.” 

The name of this knife implies its versatility in the home kitchen. Though the origins of the name are still disputed to this day, there are three popular and plausible theories:

  • It’s equally handy for slicing, dicing, and mincing food;
  • It has three distinct sections: the tip, the edge, and the heel;
  • It effortlessly cuts through anything: meat, fish, and vegetables.

Bunka bōchō translates as “cultural knife.” 

Respectively, santoku bōchō translates as “cultural knife with three uses.”

The santoku knife is basically a Japanese chef’s knife. It dates back to post-WWII Japan in the mid-1940s. 

After the end of World War II, the Japanese discovered new styles of cooking from the people of the West. So they developed this knife as their response to the European chef’s knife that was already popular in the US. It’s a hybrid of Western and Japanese knife-making traditions.

The santoku knife introduced Western culture to Japanese home cooking, hence its second name, bunka bōchō for cultural knife—a tool that spread cultural change across the country. 

This is the knife of choice of the modern Japanese home cook, yet it still resembles a traditional knife from the past. The Japanese, as you can tell, are people that keep close to their traditions (even when they change).

How is a Santoku Knife Different From a Chef’s Knife?

At first glance, the santoku knife and the chef’s knife look similar. 

Both the santoku and the chef’s knife are all-purpose knives fit for a variety of cutting techniques like slicing, dicing, and mincing. And both are widely used in professional and in home kitchens. 

In general, Japanese-made santoku knives are smaller, sharper, and lighter than European- and American-made chef’s knives.

The chef’s knife originated in Solingen, Germany, whereas the santoku knife in Seki, Japan. Today, these two cities are widely regarded as the two “knife capitals of the world.” Though the European chef’s knife originated in Germany, a second, French, style of chef’s knives also exists.

The typical santoku blade is 6″ to 7″ (15 to 18 cm) long, in comparison to the standard 8″ (20 cm) blade of a chef’s knife. The santoku has a flat edge and a sheep’s-foot blade. The chef’s knife is more deeply and continuously curved along the whole cutting edge.

Both the santoku and the chef’s knife have double-faceted blades. However, the Japanese blades are usually thinner (approx. thickness 0.25 mm with each facet at 15-17°) than their European counterparts (approx. thickness 0.5 mm with each faced at 17-20°).

Santoku knives are lighter to hold than chef’s knives. The typical santoku knife weighs 6-7 ounces (170-200 grams), whereas most chef’s knives weigh 8.5-9.5 ounces (250-270 grams).

This is because European (and American) chef’s knives have been made for handling heavier foods, like red meat, poultry, and fibrous vegetables, when compared to Japanese santoku knives, designed mostly for cutting seafood and less fibrous vegetables.

Compared to the chef’s knife, the santoku is a shorter and more approachable all-purpose knife for the Japanese home cook.

Why Do Santoku Knives Have Dimples?

One trait that sets the santoku knife apart from a chef’s knife is its dimples, those small and shallow indentations along its blade.

According to Japanese knife-making theory, the dimples on santoku knives create small pockets of air as you cut food. Those pockets of air prevent the food from sticking to the blade.

In practice (and as someone who has both a chef’s knife and a santoku knife at home), the difference is there, but it isn’t necessarily a game-changer.

The Best Santoku Knife (My Pick)

If you’re looking for the best santoku knife for your home kitchen, look no further than the Mac MSK-65 Professional Hollow Edge 6 ½-inch Santoku Knife.

Mac Knife MSK-65 Professional Hollow Edge Santoku Knife, 6-1/2-Inch, Silver
  • 2.5mm blade
  • Razor-sharp edge
  • Sub-zero tempered steel retains its edge better than original steel

Though any knife under is an investment, the Mac MSK-65 gives you the best price/quality ratio on the market.

This is by far the highest quality Japanese-made santoku knife that you can steal for this price tag. It’s lightweight, well-balanced, and shipped to you as sharp as a santoku knife can possibly get.

MAC Corporation is a Japanese knifemaker. The company was established in 1965 by Tatsuo Kobayashi of Seki City in Japan. Since, MAC Corporation has developed a name for itself as the maker of the world’s sharpest knives.

Instead of trying to convince you of the Mac MSK-65’s qualities, I encourage you to check this santoku knife out for yourselves and come to your own conclusions. The customer ratings and reviews on Amazon are almost always a good start.

Conclusion

Friends and readers are often surprised that this seemingly traditional knife is actually a modern hybrid of Japanese and European-American knifemaking.

That’s what I love about santoku knives. You get the authenticity and down-to-earthiness of Japanese tradition and the precision and functionality of German engineering in one knife.

If you’re used to heavier chef’s knives (especially German-style ones), the santoku is a surprisingly lightweight yet very comfortable knife to handle. It’s smaller than the typical chef’s knife and takes some getting used to.

But you know what folks in the knife community say. Once you go Mac, you never go back 🙂 .