John Newton

Adriano Zumbo's Japanese chef's knife.
From sword to chopping board ... Japanese knives are the result of 800 years of craftsmanship. Photo: Steven Siewert

THERE IS SOMETHING HOT in restaurant kitchens right now. Even hotter than Trinidad Scorpion Butch T, the world's most scorching chilli.

It is a Japanese knife, and for chefs who do not own one, it is likely to be high on their wish-list for Santa.

''I have a very lovely selection of knives,'' says the head chef at Chin Chin in Melbourne, Benjamin Cooper. ''A custom-made blue-steel Sakai deba with an ebony handle, and two wa gyutos, one hammer-finished from Fukui.''

Deba? Wa gyuto? Fukui? To enter the world of Japanese knives, a crash course in Japanese is needed (see end of story).

The subject is so complex ''it takes me two to three years to train a new staff member'', says Leigh Hudson, who opened the first Chef's Armoury, which specialises in Japanese knives, in Sydney three years ago. He now runs the recently opened Melbourne branch.

Japanese knives are the result of 800 years of craftsmanship, made, in most cases, by the same small companies and co-operatives that made samurai swords, or katanas. The best of them are handmade from hand-forged steel. The very best - and most expensive - will be signed, with the maker's name etched into the blade.

Some are made by folding upwards of 100 layers of Damascus steel around a high-carbon stainless-steel core; others are made from hammer-forged stainless steel. Japanese stainless steel is harder than European steel when measured by the Rockwell scale; a typical German knife will rate 52-56, while the Japanese will score 58-65, so it will keep its edge longer.

However, Japanese knives are about more than numbers. ''I never felt comfortable using German or European knives,'' says the head chef at Woollahra's Buzo, Mitch Orr. ''They're too harsh. The Japanese knives are subtler, beautifully made, pretty to look at and amazing to use.''

One of the Hudson-trained employees at Chef's Armoury, Eddie Stewart, gave Good Food a tour of the knives, and the experience of using them. We learnt there's a Japanese knife for just about every cutting job. For example, there's the one-sided - sharpened on one side only - yanagiba for sashimi, the nikiri for vegetables, the sujuhiki for slicing boneless meat, and the sakimaru tako biki, which is an octopus knife. We saw an example being made by one of the Sakai Takayuki brand's most experienced forgers, Kegiro Doi.

Stewart shows us how to have our knives custom-made by choosing between the blades of two regions, Fukui and Sakai, then choosing from a range of handle materials, including Australian materials such as Huon pine and silky oak. ''A lot of the Fukui knives go to home cooks,'' Stewart says. ''Our sales are 50-50 domestic and professional.''

By now we're itching to get our mitts on one of these beautiful instruments. We're led to a cutting board and given an orange and three different knives.

First, an MCUSTA gyuto - a chef's knife - made of VG10 stainless steel. It's much better than any knife we've used thus far. An excellent entry-level knife for the price.

Second, a Fukui 150-millimetre blue-steel petty knife. It's a utility knife, very sharp but also very light - too light.

Finally, a knife chefs might sell their soul for: a Saji ironwood 210 gyuto with a cow-bone handle; the blade is 100 layers of Damascus steel wrapped around a diamond-hard core of R2 powder steel. R2? It's a secret formula. This beautiful blade turns everything it cuts into butter. A sensational knife. A good Japanese knife, Cooper says, ''becomes a part of your arm faster. You use it differently; you don't put anywhere as much pressure on it.''

Japanese chef and the author of the Encyclopedia of Japanese Cuisine, Hideo Dekura, says: ''I own 150 knives but use 20 regularly. Each ingredient requires a different knife and cutting technique.'' He has his knives custom-made by two makers in Japan.

''I liken Japanese knives to tattoos,'' Cooper says. ''Once you've got one, you can't stop.''

You have been warned.

Found in translation

Deba Fish filleter

Gyuto/Wa gyuto Chef's knife

Hocho Cooking knife

Hon kasumi Layered steel, hard over soft or soft over hard, forged together, as in Damascus steel

Honyaki A single piece of steel for a blade forged and tempered, harking back to katanas, or samurai swords

Nakiri Standard vegetable knife

Petty Utility knife

Santoku ''Three virtues'': chopping, slicing, dicing

Usuba Traditional vegetable knife

Yanagiba Sashimi slicer

Chef's Armoury, 747 Botany Road, Rosebery, Sydney, (02) 9699 2353.