JAPANESE BUNKA KNIFE
Explore the unique history and features of the Bunka knife
Bunka is a Japanese kitchen knife, used in home–as well as professional–kitchens, as a multi-purpose knife for preparing meat, fish and vegetables. In Japanese, bunka 文化 directly translates to 'culture'.
This term carries significant importance in the culinary world of Japan, and Bunka Bōchō stands as an important milestone between a rich heritage and deeply rooted traditions and the inevitable force of progress and intercultural influence that have shaped the modern art of Japanese cooking.
Shape and size
The bold silhouette of its blade is instantly recognizable, especially in the reverse-tanto (or K-tip) tip which is a nod to the mighty katana.
Bunka is a great multi-purpose knife, which means it can be used for preparing most of the ingredients we encounter on a day-to-day basis – anything from meat, fish, and vegetables.
➝ It has a flexible profile that is wide enough at the handle,
➝ a gently designed belly of the blade suitable for making either long or short cuts,
➝ a flat back side of the blade,
➝ and a thin pointy reverse tanto tip for precise cuts and carvings.
A brief history...
At the turn of the 19th century's end and the early days of the 20th, the Japanese culinary world experienced a small revolution, which marked the emergence of new knife shapes, most notably the gyuto, santoku, and, the star of this article – the bunka. As mentioned, Japanese cuisine saw a small paradigm shift, seen in the change of culinary laws (especially against the consumption of beef), which exposed them to Western culinary practices and led to the creation of many new, especially meat-based dishes. This called for new knife shapes to accommodate these novelties. This is how the gyuto ('cow katana') was born, a kind of Japanese version of the chef's knife, that was first used to take apart larger pieces of meat and slice steaks in restaurants across Japan.
In home kitchens, there was a shift from tradition as well, as people, especially younger households, started deviating from the common practice of using a specialized knife to prepare each ingredient (eg. deba for fish, and nakiri for vegetables). Instead, they opted for a multi-purpose shape that could take care of most of the tasks at hand. And that is how the bunka came to be. It was marketed as a modern, efficient knife that could cut meat, fish, and vegetables. 'Bunka' translates to culture or cultural, but in this case refers to something modern, clever, efficient – everything that it embodies as an innovative, contemporary multi-purpose knife.
What is the best size bunka knife?
Shorter bunka knives are great for chopping vegetables and herbs, as well as cutting smaller pieces of meat and fish. Longer bunkas are great for vegetables as well, but even more suitable for taking apart larger pieces of meat, cutting anything from steaks and roasts to slicing sashimi and sushi rolls!
The best size is the one that fits the chef's needs the best. The spread of the length differences isn't as large as with gyuto knives, though we can normally find them distributed at two ends of a spectrum. On one end, there are shorter bunka knives, usually not measuring less than 165mm (6.5 inches). On the other, we can find longer ones that are up to 200mm (7.9 inches) long.
Shorter bunka knives are better suited for smaller cutting surfaces and preparing vegetables. If you cut and slice a lot of roasts, larger pieces of meat, or sashimi, a few added units of measurement of length might be the way to go. This enables us to slice our ingredients in one long pulling motion, which results in a smooth cut, so our ingredients don't end up looking like they were cut with a chainsaw. 😜
versatile blade design
Bunka Knife Shape Variations
While there isn't that much variation in their length, many different spins on the bunka shape have come to evolve. Each with its own story and specific purpose, they show the rich culture surrounding the bunka shape that is still very much alive today.
Kengata Bunka: 剣形 "sword like"
Hakata: 博多 "the name of the district in Fukuoka, Japan"
Ko-Bunka: 小文化 "small bunka"
➝ Kengata bunka
Kengata (meaning 'sword-like') is often used interchangeably with bunka in the realm of Japanese kitchen knives. That's why it might be a bit confusing at first, as its shape is very similar to a standard bunka, whose fundamental attributes are instantly recognizable: reverse tanto tip for precision work, wider profile, and a slightly shorter blade length. We apply the term kengata to denote a knife that departs from the usual form with a blade that is a bit more curved towards the tip (instead of the usual flat blade) and somewhat narrower. This way, the knife can be rocked back and forth on the cutting board, allowing for a different cutting technique that some might miss with a traditional bunka. It is still great for chopping, though, as it is for preparing all kinds of meat and raw fish.
Hakata is a variation on the bunka style blade. The K-tip is recognizable, but the blade’s profile is wider, and the tip more pronounced due to the blade’s height. The shape itself is also unique, as the cutting edge is almost completely flat along the whole length of the knife, right until it starts curving into the tip. This means the knife is great for chopping, but with a tip long and curved enough to still allow for precise work. Hakata is the name of the district in Fukuoka, Japan. Hakata knives were originally made by blacksmith from this area.
As we learned, the word bunka means 'culture', and ko means 'small'. So you guessed it, the ko-bunka is basically just a smaller version of the bunka! It sports the recognizable reverse tanto tip, with a blade size that is scaled down a bit. Why not just call it a petty then? While the dimensions definitely put it in that ballpark, it has an extra dimension of functionality due to its blade height, as it keeps the proportions of a bunka. This means enough knuckle clearance for comfortably chopping herbs, mincing garlic, prepping veggies or even cutting meat. And it looks cool!
How do you use a Bunka knife?
As we've learned, the bunka's blade is shorter and flat, has a wider profile, and a reverse tanto tip.
This means you will get the most out of your bunka knife if you use it for up-and-down, as well as forward-and-down chopping. The flat edge will make full contact with the cutting board, ensuring that the ingredient on the receiving end of the razor-sharp blade will be cut along its whole length when chopping.
Another virtue of the bunka's blade lies in its height, which gives its user a lot of knuckle clearance, only adding to the evidence that helps build the case for bunka being a chopping powerhouse. After leaving a desolation of chopped produce behind, we can also utilize the height of the blade to scoop it into the pan. Just make sure you are using the spine, and not the belly of the knife, as you can chip the cutting edge!
reverse tanto tip
Due to the pronounced reverse tanto tip, it is also great for push- or pull-cutting, and you can utilize the tip for precision work – chopping garlic and other small ingredients, piercing through chicken skin, and getting to the hard-to-get-places a bit easier. Another underrated aspect of the K-tip is a clearer view of the tip's movement during cutting, ensuring more exact work.
gyuto vs bunka
What is the difference between a Western chef's knife and a Bunka?
A Western Chef's knife usually is a bit more curved, and therefore has less of a flat surface for chopping, with its focus on the rocking motion cutting technique, which is prevalent in Western culinary practices. Bunka knives characteristically have a flatter cutting edge and a wider profile, which means that the blade is taller than a chef's knife. This results in more knuckle clearance from the cutting board which, coupled with the flat blade, makes the knife very comfortable for up-and-down chopping.
Another notable difference between the two is in the knives' tips, where bunka sets itself apart with the reverse-tanto or (K-tip) tip, which excels at precise tasks and can be used to utilized to pierce through due to its very sharp point.
Due to different steels being used, bunka knives are also notably lighter and thinner, which adds to the precision and agility of the knife. We'll touch on this topic in the next section.
As mentioned above, the core difference between the bunka and the Chef's knife lies in the heart of the knife – in the steel that shapes them. Two main differences in the steels are: the sharpness and the hardness.
The molecular structure of Japanese steels is much purer (they include less chromium (Cr) and other additives) which allows them to be sharpened to a much finer sharpness. Read more about the metallurgical science behind kitchen knife steels.
Western knives use softer stainless steels that normally have a hardness ranging from 52 to 58 on the Rockwell scale (HRC). As bunka is one of the modern Japanese knife shapes, blacksmiths like to also use modern steel to forge them. Very often, they are made out of advanced powder steels – such as ZDP-189, SG2 and HAP-40 – which stand at the forefront of Japanese kitchen knife steel development. Using high amounts of carbon (C) and chromium (Cr), they are able to produce blades that resist corrosion like stainless knives, while also reaching hardness levels between 62 and up to 68 HRC! Why is this so important? The harder the steel, the longer the sharpness is retained and the less you have to worry about sharpening.
Chef's knives have Western style (Yo) handles with rivets, while Japanese knives like the bunka are traditionally fitted with Japanese (Wa) handles, though in recent years we can find a few of them sporting Yo handles as well. The main differences are in weight and materials, Japanese handles are crafted from wood and therefore lighter, while Western style handles are usually made out of micarta, with wood composites such as pakka wood being common too.
Kiritsuke vs. Bunka
What is the difference between kiritsuke and bunka?
➝ Bunka has a shorter blade with a wider profile and a double-bevel edge, which means it makes for a great multi-purpose knife, suitable for a wide range of tasks and dishes.
➝ Kiritsuke is a single-bevel knife, specialized for the traditional preparation of raw fish and vegetables.
In its purest form, kiritsuke usually refers to a long, single-bevel blade with a reverse-tanto tip. It is kind of a hybrid between a yanagiba and an usuba and therefore used primarily to slice pieces of sashimi and to cut vegetables. Traditionally, it was used only by the head chef in Japanese restaurants.
Perhaps a bit confusingly, a kiritsuke can also mean a double-bevel, multi-purpose knife, sometimes also called a kiritsuke gyuto (or K-tip gyuto).
Kiritsuke and bunka have a common denominator in the reverse tanto tip, which results in a similar appearance. And in reality, that is also the only thing that is similar between the bunka and the traditional, single-bevel kiritsuke. They differ significantly both in blade length and height, their blade geometry, and therefore, most importantly, also in their use.
We can, however, draw many more similarities between the bunka and the modern, double-bevel kiritsuke. They only really significantly differ in their length, as what we call a bunka typically isn't longer than 200mm (7.9 inches), while we usually find kiritsuke knives somewhere in the 210-240mm (8.3-9.4 inches) category, though some can also reach the 270mm (10.6 inches) mark.
This means that this type of kiritsuke will behave exactly like a bunka in its cutting performance, with the main difference showing when handling larger pieces of produce, such as pumpkins, larger cuts of meat, etc., due to the length difference.
Therefore, a kiritsuke might find itself better utilized by an experienced set of hands with a large cutting surface at their disposal.