Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.
Japanese knife specialty shop owner Bjorn Heiberg was born in Canada and raised in Denmark. He moved to Japan in 1993 and worked as an English teacher before eventually joining a trading company. He was first introduced to Japanese knives when he sold blade sharpeners to a knife company in Osaka. Captivated by the astounding cutting quality of Japanese knives, Heiberg quit his job as a salesman and joined the knife company he had visited. After nine years with that company, he decided to open up a showroom/specialty knife store in Osaka. Through his two shops in Osaka and one shop in Tokyo, Heiberg helps share the greatness of Japanese knives with people around the world.
March 13, 2018
Japanophiles: Bjorn Heiberg
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What do samurai and sushi have in common? The first answer that comes to mind might be that they’re both Japanese, but their connection is actually much deeper and important than that. The development of washoku, Japan’s unique traditional cuisine, wouldn’t have been possible without the technology that was used to make katana, the ultra sharp swords carried by samurai. That’s right—the same techniques that were once employed to make lethal weapons are also what make possible the preparation of a mouthwatering sushi dinner or a beautiful kaiseki meal.
As we learn in this edition, when Japan entered the Edo period and peace became the norm across the land, sword-smiths began making cooking knives in addition to weapons. After a ban on the wearing of swords went into effect in 1876, smiths began focusing in earnest on the creation of knives, scissors, and other bladed tools. Blades made in Sakai, in Osaka—once Japan’s best center for sword production—were of such superior quality that they were allowed to be engraved with “Sakai Exclusive.” Sakai craftsmen are still among the best in Japan, and in modern times it takes at least three of them to make a single knife from start to finish. In recognition of its unparalleled quality, the Ministry of Trade, Economy, and Industry bestowed upon Sakai cutlery the designation of Traditional National Craft in 1982.
Not only are Japanese knives beautiful, they’re extremely functional as well.
Heiberg’s shop caters to both Japanese and foreign clients.
In his specialty shops, Japanophile Bjorn Heiberg sells hundreds of knives crafted by some of the most skilled smiths from across Japan. The staggering array might seem overwhelming to the untrained eye, but, as he explains to host Peter Barakan, there are three basic knife categories. They are: usuba-bocho (“thin blade”), deba-bocho (“fat blade”), and sashimi-bocho (also known as yanagi-bocho, or “willow blade”). Each is used for a specific purpose in a Japanese kitchen.
An usuba-bocho is used for chopping vegetables. This is the type of knife used on the program to peel an extremely thin sheet of daikon radish, a style of cutting known as katsura-muki. Deba-bocho are used for filleting and breaking down fish. The importance of solid deba-bocho skills cannot be overstated—in the restaurant business, wasted food is wasted money, so it is vital for chefs to be able to take as much meat off of fish as possible. Last but not least, the sashimi-bocho is used for cutting fish meat into pieces for sashimi or sushi. Fish is handled with great care during preparation, and the blade is pulled, not pushed, when cutting.
The three types of Japanese knives.
Peter puts his vegetable-cutting technique to the test.
Aspiring chefs need to work their ways through the types of knives and aren’t allowed to handle certain ingredients until they’ve successfully mastered particular cutting techniques. It’s not uncommon for apprentices to use their own money to buy vegetables such as carrots or daikon to practice their cutting and peeling skills. They’ll start practicing with usuba-bocho, move on to deba-bocho, and then eventually graduate to sashimi-bocho wielding status. As Chef Anami mentions on the program, Japanese knives are absolutely fundamental for presenting the best possible meal to customers. In fact, a restaurant can be judged not only by its fish, but also by the quality of its ken, the paper-thin daikon threads that garnish sashimi dishes.
While it might seem like there is a barrier to entry for purchasing and using a Japanese knife of one’s own, that is certainly not the case. A professional chef’s knife may cost several hundred dollars, but more affordable versions are available for the casual home cook. Buying a good knife is a true investment, and that is why Heiberg takes the time to educate his customers about the stories behind each one, as well as to provide quick cutting and sharpening lessons.
Heiberg explains to customers the various qualities of Japanese knives, and he brings craftsmen into his shops to demonstrate traditional smithing techniques. Certified Traditional Craftsman Keiichi Fujii loves the new attention his work is getting, and says that Heiberg is helping to revolutionize the business. Heiberg’s methods are bringing new awareness of knives to Japanese and foreigners alike, an approach that could be invaluable for traditional Japanese arts and crafts in general at a time when artisans are aging and very few young people are learning the ropes.
Heiberg teaches a customer how to properly sharpen a knife.
Knives and sharpening stones on display at one of Heiberg’s Osaka stores.
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