Slicing up a fish can be tricky. They’re cold, they’re full of bones, they smell, and they’re slippery! But boy oh boy, are they delicious. One of my absolute, all time, double-favourite foods since I was a kid is chinook salmon. My mom would simply oven roast it at a low temperature with salt and lemon to a perfect ‘medium’. That’s it. Beauty. I would have happily eaten it every single day, and often wondered why we didn’t – until I got older and realized that fillets of Chinook salmon were decidedly not cheap.
Going to the seafood retail shop and buying fancy pants salmon several times a week isn’t in everyone’s budget but there are some tips to pinch your pennies when working with premium fish. One of the best is learning how to process the whole fish yourself, or even learn how to catch your own. Both of these endeavours will require you to learn the basics of fish butchery, for which you’re gonna need some knives. That’s where we can help!
The short, thick deba is ideal for breaking down whole fish and cracking through small bones.
The Deba, Japan’s Fish Butchering Knife
A Deba, which means “Short Fat Tooth” in Japanese, is your bestie when it comes to fishmongery. Basically, it’s a big thick sharktooth-shaped knife that has a fat and heavy spine, and sharp edge with a low bevel. This type of geometry lends itself extremely well to processing softer foods like fish or animal flesh. The thick grind will glide through soft fish with ease, and the thicker blade will also be able to stand up to a little bit more abuse than your standard gyuto or santoku. This tool is ideal for cleaning a whole fish: removing the head and removing the fillets from the spine are pretty “high impact” jobs, so having a big rugged knife like this that easily keeps a razor edge will make life a lot easier! Check out this awesome vid of my buddy Nathan going HAAM on a fish with a Deba, you’ll get the idea.
Pretty cool, right? Not only is doing your own fish butchery a ton of fun, but it can be a real money saver. Have you ever purchased a whole chicken? The price per pound is much cheaper than buying chicken parts, right? Same goes for fish! Trading a bit of your own time and skill for a little bit of your own money always makes sense to me. And it can be a fun hobby, much like other parts of cooking! As long as you’re putting a bit more work into your food, you’ll be able to afford to eat better food more frequently, and having a good quality set of tools will make it a lot easier.
So you’ve got your fish broken down – there’s a couple of nice looking skin on fillets ready to go, and you’ve also got some great scrap ready to make some stock. Good on ya! But what now? Depending on what your recipe calls for, it might be time to break your fillets down a little bit further. Have you ever been to a Sushi restaurant? If so, you might be familiar with the next fish cutting knife…
The long, slender yanagiba is an essential tool for sushi preparation.
The Yanagiba, the Ultimate Fish Slicer
The Yanagiba is a long, slender, pointy knife. It’s the ideal tool for gently removing the fish’s skin, and for portioning your fish into manageable pieces or even slicing it into sashimi. “Gentle” is the name of the game when it comes to this knife. Fish is very delicate and will greatly benefit from having a knife (and cook!) that will treat it with the respect it deserves.
Like the Deba, the Yanagiba is a “single-beveled” knife, meaning it’s only sharpened on one side. It’s got a thin, razor sharp edge, and a hefty spine that will let gravity assist you when slicing. The back side of the knife is also ground to be ever so slightly concave, making the blade non-stick. And if you’re eating a fish that doesn’t have edible skin, they excel at skinning fish too. There’s nothing quite like gliding through a beefy slab of tuna loin with a nice sharp Yanagiba! Let mega-nerd Naoto show you how to get the most out of one here…
So is that it? Are those the only two knives that you can use for slicing up fish? Heck no!! These are the ultimate knives that specialize in fishmongery, but that’s not to say that you can’t do a good job with a well sharpened Gyuto or Sujihiki. The Sujihiki in particular is excellent in place of a yanagiba. It’s easier to get the hang of, and also rocks for carving roasts and portioning steaks. I’ve even been known to bust out my Honesuki to break down smaller fish like mackerel or bream from time to time, but the Deba and Yanagiba are the ultimate duo if you’re interested in dipping your toes into fishmongery.
If you wanna give them a try, I would suggest checking out the Sakai Takayuki Kasumitogi and Tadafusa Hocho Kobo lines. They offer some stellar price vs. performance. If you’re looking to get more serious, I really recommend the Sakai Kikumori and Masashi Yamamoto lines of single bevel beauties. But if you really wanna experience the ultimate in luxury, check out the Byakko, Ginryu, and Zangetsu knives from our pals at Sakai Takayuki. They’re the absolute best in my humble opinion.
Is There a Japanese Flexible Fillet Knife?
Now let’s address the elephant in the room: flexible fillet knives. These babies are loved by western anglers and chefs for their ability to scrape against bones and retrieve every delicious morsel of fish. The Japanese method of fish cutting is a bit different from what most of us westerners learn, and favours more rigid knives. We are a Japanese knife store, so we tend to carry what gets used in Japan, and I happen to think the Japanese method of fish cutting is pretty spectacular. That said, we’re also a Canadian company and we have many North American customers, so of course we have flexible fillet knives!
Our sister brand, Kent of Inglewood, has all manner of flexible fillet knives adored by western anglers.
It’s almost impossible for a blacksmith to forge a thin, bendy knife from hard steel, but Shun makes an excellent flexible fillet knife. We also carry a Jamonero from Arcos, designed for thinly slicing Iberico ham, and it works great for larger fish. Our sister store, Kent of Inglewood, specializes in hunting and fishing knives, and carries several flexible fillet knives that work a treat, including a super bendy one from Opinel, and a several more rigid choices from Helle.
Whatever your style, we’ve got you covered for the best fish knives. If you’re adventurous, I highly recommend trying the Japanese method. It’s very efficient and gives you an excuse to add a couple of cool new knives to your collection. Happy fish cutting!
Shop for a Deba
Shop for a Yanagiba