Hocho-shiki (knife ceremony) is a traditional Japanese ritual dating back to the ages. The mere existence of this ritual shows just how deep-rooted knives are in Japanese cooking and daily life. We spoke to Hideo Dekura, a Japanese chef based in Sydney and qualified hocho-shiki instructor, about the traditions behind the ritual and the influence knives have on cooking.
Q: What exactly is the ritual of hocho-shiki?
A: While various theories exist, hocho-shiki is a ritual that was performed 1,300 years ago during the Nara period as an imperial court event. It is said to have originated as a way to present fish, poultry, and other produce to Emperor Koko, the 58th emperor of Japan. Emperors at the time were considered to be kami (gods), and the act of humans touching food to be served to the emperor would contaminate it. As such, food was sliced up using only a knife and a pair of chopsticks to avoid touching it with human hands. After 1,300 years of history, the ritual of hocho-shiki still continues to be performed to this day at Japanese shrines and temples to express gratitude to the gods for bountiful harvests. I have also performed this ritual myself a number of times in Australia. The modern iteration of the ritual still involves the wearing of an eboshi (headgear of court nobles), and hitatare (flowing dress of court nobles), and the act of filleting fish using only a pair of cooking chopsticks and a knife, without the hands ever touching the fish itself, remains intact.
Q: Has the hocho-shiki ritual had any influence on current Japanese cooking?
A: It certainly has. Appreciation of food forms the foundations of hocho-shiki. Each and every beautiful, meaningful motion of the ritual shows respect towards food; and the detailed, thorough cuts of the knife are symbolic of the mentality to waste nothing. I believe this philosophy has been passed through the 1,300 years leading to the present and is reflected in the spirit behind modern Japanese cooking.
Q: For the act of filleting meats to become a ritual, knives must play a significant role in
cooking. Is this a correct assumption to make?
A: That’s right. In fact, do you know what dish is a Japanese cuisine original? While it used to be served in vinegar, much like namasu (a dish of raw fish and vegetables seasoned with vinegar), it is none other than sashimi. The flavours of this well-known dish vary quite drastically depending on how the fish is sliced. If the sliced cross-section is uneven, then the fibres of the fish collapse, leading to a drop in freshness; whereas if there is a sharp, clean cut, then the freshness is maintained, and the texture is pleasant, leading to an enhanced flavour. This knowledge of different cuts impacting flavours must have been why skilled chefs were known as hocho-nin (knife wielders). I believe that knives greatly impact the quality of food, much in line with the way of thinking centuries ago.
Q: What is the difference between Japanese knives and Western knives?
A: Sharpness. Whilst Western knives are easy to maintain and have their own advantages, the
sharpness of Japanese knives is phenomenal. Force is not needed to slice using a Japanese
knife, and you are able to cut up food items without destroying the fibres. These knives are
also produced with the wielder in mind, so it is well-balanced in the hand, and almost feels as if it is an extension of your own body. Japanese knives can be difficult to maintain, but there is significance behind putting in the effort for the upkeep of a treasured tool. The more you use it, the more it shows its true worth; the growing desire to cherish Japanese knives is what makes them so great.