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Ask a sushi chef for a gift idea.

An enduring gift sure to please any cook, a good kitchen knife is an indispensable tool. The knives we show here come from Japan and China, where the fine art of cooking has produced elegant utensils designed for specific tasks.

Your favorite chef might like one or more of them. They're well made but relatively inexpensive. Their unusual shapes and intricate lettering give them great visual appeal. In addition to their appointed tasks, they can do the same jobs as any European- or American-made knife. When we used them ourselves, we were impressed by their balance--and, in many cases, by their versatility.

In general, Japanese knives are single-edged, sharpened on only one side; they can make thinner slices and cleaner cuts than double-edged types. The sharp edge is usually on the right side of the blade, favoring right-handed chefs ("left-handed" knives are available, but they cost a bit more). All come in various lengths.

Kitchen cutters (including the deba and Chinese cleavers) are useful for cutting meat and filleting fish. A deba like the one shown can go through chicken bones. Chinese cleavers are widely available--some are made in the U.S. They're graded 1, 2, and 3, heavy to light. The cutting action is up and down, on a vertical plane.

Vegetable knives (nakiri, usuba) are meant for slicing, chopping, and mincing. We found these extremely versatile, able to do much the same work as a French chef's knife.

Fish and meat slicers (funayuki, yanagiba, takobiki) are long, thin-bladed knives that cut nearly through soft fish for sashimi or slice thinly through meats to stir-fry. Oriental chefs also use these to slice long lengths of vegetables. We found them great for angled slices, as in carving flank steak or ham.

Prices are reasonable,

but knives need care

You can buy small, stocking-stuffer versions, often with wood or plastic sheaths, for $3 to $10. Bigger kitchen knives start at about $15 but at that price tend to have blades of lesser quality. Better knives cost $25 to $60, though we've seen some large, extraordinarily handsome ones for $100 and more--kitchen heirlooms, obviously. Blades are of stainless or carbon steel. Stainless types resist corrosion but are harder to sharpen. Carbon steel blades are lighter and easier to sharpen but rust easily. And because carbon steel blades are usually thin, they can nick or chip if improperly used or stored.

To keep the blades sharp, we found that you can use a steel, a good water whet-stone, or even an oil stone. Some purists recommend water stones only; you can buy one for about $10 (slightly more for one mounted on a wooden base).

Wash and dry these knives by hand as soon as you using them. Store them in a wooden block or protected knife rack. Apply a little oil to wooden handles to keep them smooth and prevent cracking.

Where to buy knives

Oriental hardware stores and some Oriental food stores carry them. Many cutlery stores stock Chinese cleavers and can order other Japanese knives. Here are some mail-order sources (listed north to south): Uwijimaya, 519 Sixth Ave., Seattle 98104; (206) 624-6248. Ask for gift department. Ginn Wall, 1016 Grant Ave., San Francisco 94133; (415) 985-6307. Free Catalog. Soko Hardware, 1698 Post St., San Francisco 94115; (415) 931-5510. Whole Earth Access, 2950 Seventh St., Berkeley 94710; (415) 845-3000 or (800) 845-2000. Catalog $14.95. Anzen Hardware, 220 E. First St., Los Angeles 90012; (213) 628-2068.

A travel note: in Japan, you can find fine kitchen knives in Aritsugu stores.
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Title Annotation:how to buy Oriental kitchen knives
Date:Dec 1, 1985
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