Sometimes you need much more precise slicing control than you get from a Chef's knife or Deba. The basic requirements are a relatively short, wide, very thin blade with a razor edge. Here are two excellent vegetable slicing knives, but both are pretty useless for anything else.
More utter crap has been written about the Santoku than just about any other knife. A few years ago it was being widely heralded as the best of all knives and the only knife you really needed in your kitchen. I know at least one celebrity chef still claims (2009) the Santoku is the only knife he uses, but I'm pretty sure he's being paid off by Wusthof, an early and intensive promotor of expensive Europeanized Santokus. Evidence: he frequently gives away Wusthof Santokus.
My Santoku (photo) is much more economical than the Wusthof and works just fine, thank you. The "Grantons" (hollows) along the edge are intended to keep slices from sticking to the blade, making cutting smoother and easier. They work, sort of, but slices still stick. The grantons are not a feature of the Japanese original, but a European addition, and the handle on most Santokus is also the European form. The photo specimen is fairly typical (Santokus now come in some pretty strange sizes). It's a 7 inch Cuisinart (with a cutting edge 6-1/2 inches long) The back edge of the blade is 0.07 inch (1.8mm) thick with at total length of 11-3/4 inches. It cost less than US $20 at BB&B. The Wusthof retails for US $79 to $99, but apparently they're feeling the heat, they've announced (late 2009) a $40 model.
Why is the Santoku nearly worthless as a general purpose prep knife? For one thing the back edge of the blade is way too thin. You can't press down on it without hurting yourself. The point is way too blunt for much prep work and the sides too flat. It slices very straight - because it is otherwise nearly impossible to maneuver. Trying to cut the core out of half an apple with a Santoku is an exercise in hilarity. It is too light and unstable for chopping. It is also too flimsy for tasks such as crushing garlic or whacking nuts with the side of the blade.
Many Santokus are waaaaaay out of balance. The blade is so light compared to the handle that if you place it near the edge of your cutting board (as you always do with your regular prep knife), it'll do a back flip off the board and head straight for your foot, point first. A light Japanese style wooden handle would really help here.
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This knife is still much used in Japan, in various sizes and thicknesses, but in North America it has been eclipsed by the Santoku due to heavy promotion by manufacturers. In theory it is very similar, short, wide, very thin, very sharp. This one, purchased about 40 years ago in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, has a European form handle. The cutting edge is 6 inches long and the back edge of the blade is 0.7 inch (1.8mm) thick. Total knife length is 11-1/4 inches.
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