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The ABCs of Japanese Cooking
#4 Basic cutting techniques

February 27, 2017

Hi, everyone! Welcome back! How's the cooking coming along?

In the previous lesson, we looked at knives and cutting boards. So now we're ready to move on to some of the basic cutting techniques. This is the fun part. I just love to cut things up. Chop, chop. It's a great way to relieve stress, don't you think?

How to hold a knife

A: Grip the bolster (that’s the area joining the blade to the handle) with your thumb and index finger and wrap the other fingers around the handle. Tightening the grip with your little finger will provide stability.

B: Place your thumb against the bolster and your index finger along the top of the blade. Wrap the other fingers around the handle. This grip allows you to apply pressure on the index finger, which makes it easier to cut those pesky tough ingredients like meat and fish bones!

Basic stance

Stand facing the cutting board and take half a step back with your dominant foot. Leave a slight space between yourself and the cutting board about the size of an apple. Whatever you're cutting, it's important to hold the food steady! And it helps to think of your hand as a claw. Make sure that the side of the blade is in contact with the first joint of the middle finger and index finger. This way you won't cut your fingers, which, believe it or not, hurts!

From Madam Akiko's Book of Trivia
Hey, don't you think the claw, the hand holding the food in place, looks like a cat's paw? That's why in Japan, we often say we form a cat's paw when cutting! Meow!

Various cutting techniques are used in Japanese cooking to make the food look as good as it tastes. Mastering these techniques will make you want to chop away!

【Hangetsu-giri】 (cutting into half-moons)
Used to cut cylindrical items into half-moon slices.

  1. Cut lengthwise in half.
  2. Place the halves cut-side down, and make uniform slices.

【Icho-giri】 (cutting into ginkgo leaf or quarter-rounds)
Used to cut cylindrical items into quarter-rounds that are similar in shape to an icho (ginkgo) leaf. Suitable for soups and salads.

  1. Cut lengthwise into quarters.
  2. Place a quarter one cut-side down, and cut into uniform slices.

【Ran-giri】 (cutting into irregular shapes)
Used to cut vegetables into irregular shapes of uniform size. The increase in surface area allows ingredients to cook evenly in less time, and absorb more flavor. Science!

  1. Lay a long, cylindrical vegetable crosswise in front of you.
  2. Start cutting diagonally from the end.
  3. After every cut, rotate the vegetable 90 degrees towards you.
  4. Keep cutting to the other end.

【Sasagaki】 (shavings)
Refers to making thin shavings by whittling a gobo burdock root as if you were sharpening a pencil.

  1. Hold the gobo in one hand and rotate it while whittling as if to sharpen it to a point.
  2. Have the cut pieces fall in a bowl of water to prevent discoloration from oxidation.

【Sogi-giri】 (slicing at an angle)
Used for cutting thick pieces of meat into thin slices by slicing at an angle. The increase in surface area allows ingredients to cook evenly in less time. It also helps tenderize the meat.

  1. Lay the meat crosswise in front of you.
  2. Lay the blade at an angle. Place the blade against the meat and draw it towards you to make a thin slice.

Fun, isn't it? I bet you can't wait to try the techniques yourself.
Now for some techniques that are guaranteed to dazzle your friends and family!

【Shiraga-negi】 (finely shredded naga-negi)
Refers to the white portion of a naga-negi long onion cut into fine shreds so that it looks like shiraga-white hair. Used for garnishes.

  1. Cut the white portion of the naga-negi into 4-5 cm lengths.
  2. Make a lengthwise incision to reveal the core and remove it. (Keep the core for other purposes.)
  3. Flatten and stack the remaining sections, inner side down, making it easier to cut.
  4. Cut along the grain into fine shreds.
  5. Soak in ice water for a few minutes and drain.

【Sanmai-oroshi】 (filleting)
Refers to separating a fish into three pieces-two fillets and the backbone. Make sure to use a sharp knife.
Here's how to clean and fillet a horse mackerel.

  1. Hold the head steady and scrape off the scales with the tip of the blade.
  2. Lay the blade at an angle and, starting from the tail, remove the hard, plate-like scales called scutes. This process is just for horse mackerel. No other fish has scutes.
  3. Cut off the head at a point just behind the pectoral fin.
  4. Make an incision from the head end to the cloaca (posterior orifice) and remove the guts with the tip of the blade.
  5. Thoroughly wash the fish, especially the cavity, and pat dry.
    The fish is now ready for filleting.
  6. Starting from the head end, separate one fillet from the bone, keeping the blade as close to the bone as possible.
  7. Turn the fish over and remove the second fillet, also from the head end.
  8. Lay the blade flat to slice off the rib bones.

From Madam Akiko's Book of Trivia
When cooking Japanese, it's very important to cut the ingredients into uniform sizes. Do you know why?

  1. It looks nicer.
  2. It allows ingredients to cook evenly.

If you have trouble cutting in uniform sizes, you might want to try a cutting board with a cutting scale. It makes life so much easier.

Madam Akiko's recipe of the day

I bet you're getting hungry. Let's start cooking!

Click here for the recipe!
Akiko Watanabe's Chikuzenni

Give it a try!

Mini Quiz

After a good meal, there's nothing like a good nap. But not until you answer my quiz!


Cutting vegetables into irregular shapes is called ran-giri.
True or false?

The answer is: True!
Once you master the basic cutting techniques, you'll have far more fun in the kitchen. Remember, it's not a race, so there's no need to rush. Take your time. With practice, you'll be able to chop away like a pro. Have fun cutting the food and not your fingers!

See also
#1 Soy sauce
#2 Mirin, sake, and miso
#3 Knives and cutting boards
#5 Otoshibuta drop lid
#6 Chopsticks Part 1
#7 Chopsticks Part 2
#8 Dashi
#9 How to cook rice without a rice cooker
#10 Dried foods
#11 How to make miso from scratch
#12 Homemade Tsukemono

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