Usuba - how difficult to learn?
This topic pops up every now and then, but I can't seem to help myself from asking. I've been thinking about getting an usuba recently. I am left-handed, so finding one I can borrow locally has been challenging. The only single bevel knife I own is a deba, and it's used so completely differently from an usuba I assume there is no comparison.
Usuba has its own cuts one must master to use it properly. My main cutting technique with a gyuto for veg is almost entirely a push cut, edge parallel to the board. I do not think I twist or put any undue strain on the edge, but I've not used something as delicate as an usubua yet.
How difficult would it be to translate my current edge-parallel push cutting for basic vegetable dicing etc into using an usuba? Am I crazy for thinking it won't be years of frustration? Is it pointless to use an usuba for non-Japanese style meals?
I've never used one and have also thought about getting one in the past. The only thing that has put me off is sharpening one as I've never sharpened a single bevel knife before.
Is a Usuba really that delicate? The ones I have seen have looked like meat cleavers when compared to a Nakiri....
I couldn't comment on how difficult they are to use but due to the profile of the blade don't they have a natural tendancy to go throught the food at an angle?
The edge on a usuba can be very delicate because it is a zero grind. Yes, there is a steep learning curve associated with using them for katsuramaki if that's what you want to do, but the other cuts aren't as difficult. The bevel actually helps to control the cut - same as for yanagiba and kiritsuke - but the technique is different
Suggest you get this book if you don't already have it
If you already push cut parallel to the board most tasks with an usuba won't be much different, unless you're cutting something thick and hard. It's almost impossible to cut something really big and hard in a perfectly straight line with an usuba. By "really big" I mean halving a watermelon or a pumpkin or something like that. Most people don't do that kind of thing very often anyways, so I don't think it's an issue for most people. It does become an issue when cutting potatoes and carrots into large pieces. I have a friend who bought an usuba when we were in Japan together and he hated using it, but he was expecting it to do things it's not designed to do. You probably shouldn't be buying an usuba if you cut carrots and potatoes and other hard things into big chunks all day. It will resist cutting straight, and you will be hitting the edge into the cutting board harder than you would with a softer vegetable. In Japan many of the cuts used to shape hard vegetables are done with the vegetable held in your hand, not sitting on a chopping board, so the fragility of the knife is a non-issue. If you're banging it through carrots onto a hard plastic cutting board you may have a problem with chipping the edge.
That being said, IMHO there is a huge step up in performance when you switch to an usuba from a gyuto for cutting vegetables. It is amazing how much better the cut surface looks when you cut something with a sharp usuba. In Japanese cooking there are a lot of vegetables that get simmered after being cut in something similar to a tourne shape. Good chefs are able to do this cut without the faintest scratch on the surface of the vegetable being visible before or after cooking. It's not as easy as it sounds. When you compare the cuts done by an usuba and a gyuto (or even a yanagi) the difference is pretty big. An usuba will also cut through harder things like kabocha squash and carrots like they are pieces of peeled avocado, provided you are cutting off pieces thinner than about 3/4". When you are cutting things thinner than 1/2" there is nothing that feels like a sharp usuba - it's really an amazing difference.
The edge will chip if you're not careful. Usuba are thin by definition. You can tell by the feel and sound it makes when it hits the chopping board that the blade is paper thin. For this reason it is preferable to have a soft chopping board. I think maple and other hardwood chopping boards are beautiful, but I prefer to use a soft rubber chopping board with all my knives, especially with my usuba.
shun's pro nakiri (which is really an usuba... but i picked it up really cheap!) was my first j knife and i found it easy to pick up and use. ive never tried any japanese cutting techniques though (incidentally that book antonio linked arrived in my hot little hands last week, time for some learning). it's very easy to sharpen because of the flat blade path and lack of a curved tip. the edge is, as mentioned more prone to chipping, not sure how a carbon would be compared to my vg10 though. it really does give perfectly clean cuts though, and i love having the flat end and curved back, its perfect for scooping veges into a prep bowl
carrots, although i dont have problems cutting, cut so damn perfectly that they stick together like glue!