The SFPFS Blog

Master Class: Japanese Knives

by Stephanie Morimoto

Members who attended the Japanese knives Master Class on June 7 were treated to a fun and in-depth demonstration of Japanese knives. The class wrapped up with a delicious tasting of Japanese foods, sake, and plum wines.

The class met at Sushi Ran in Sausalito with Misao Hirano, who runs Tsukiji Masamoto, a top Japanese knife manufacturer. Mr. Hirano joined Masamoto in 1960 at age 15, and 40 years later, his enthusiasm and knowledge for Japanese knives still shines.

Through a translator, Yuko Kumano, Mr. Hirano began by explaining the 12 stages of traditional Japanese knife forging, showing samples of the raw steel and iron, then how the materials change through each stage of heating, hammering and sharpening. Craftsmen specialize in only one of two stages: either hammering the metal into a blade, or completing the final sharpening of the blade into a knife. Typically, Japanese knife craftsmen are father-son teams, with the craft taking at least 15 years to master.

Then Mr. Hirano demonstrated the precise process for sharpening Japanese knives: how to hold the blade, at what angle to hold the blade against the sharpening stone, and the grit levels (rough, medium and super fine) of sharpening stones used for home use contrasted with those for professional use. Members Bill Roberson, Deb Sampson and Cathy Schreiber tried the intricate process, with Mr. Hirano coaching them and smiling with praise.

Chef Garth Murakami of Sushi Ran then demonstrated how to use Japanese knives to filet and slice an amberjack into sushi and sashimi. He explained that using a single-beveled Japanese knife is better for sushi-making because the blade slices cleanly and leaves the fish cells intact without releasing the fish’s oil, yielding a fresher taste and aesthetically, a perfectly straight edge on the fish slices.

The group concluded the afternoon with an array of Sushi Ran’s delectable sushi and hot dishes, including salmon, hamachi and tuna nigiri sushi; spicy tuna, avocado cucumber and salmon rolls; seaweed salad; seasonal greens salad with miso dressing; Vietnamese shaking beef; caramelized shrimp; and petrale sole. Representatives from three sake breweries and a plum winery — Tamano Hikari Sake Brewery, Dassai Sake Brewery, Hakkai Jozo and Choya Umeshu — offered tastings to the group as well.

Everyone left full and happy, and much more knowledgeable about Japanese knives.

Vanilla Master Class wows attendees

Have you ever thought to add a touch of vanilla to tomato sauce to cut the acidity? Do you know how to tell if a bean is from Mexico, Madagascar or Tahiti? Did you know that the Madagascar variety is called Bourbon vanilla after the French king who controlled the island when it was first successfully cultivated?

The members who attended the vanilla Master Class on April 26 learned this and much more, while enjoying a wide range of delicious foods that featured vanilla in both sweet and savory uses.

The group met up at the International Culinary School at The Art Institute of California-San Francisco with Beth Nielsen — the third generation working in her family business, Nielsen-Massey.

She began by introducing the group to the three main varieties of vanilla, in a comparative tasting of whipped creams. The group got up close and personal with the beans, seeing for themselves the physical differences, as well as the different aromas and flavors each offers. Mexican vanilla is drier and skinnier than the other two, with a woody and spicy fragrance. Madagascar is long and slender with a thick oily skin and a strong vanilla aroma. Tahitian is shorter and plumper than Madagascar, with a fruity, floral scent. Beth also provided some history of vanilla cultivation.

Most of the “lessons” in this extraordinary class came through food, however. John Britton, mixologist at Heaven’s Dog, stirred up two cocktail creations. Chef Tim Kuck of StarGrazer Café in Chicago presented a family-style meal that featured Vanilla Marinated Steak with Vanilla Bean Compound Butter, Baby Carrots with Golden Vanilla Raisins and Vanilla Sweet Potato Salad. Each vegetable was tasted three times with each of the different vanillas. Pastry chef Elise Fineberg provided the final flourish to the meal, Vanilla Bean Crème Brûlée.

The group left full and happy, much more knowledgeable about this extraordinary orchid pod, and with a number of generous gifts from Nielsen-Massey, including recipes, a book on the company’s vanilla history, a jar of vanilla powder and a hard-bound book on vanilla that they published last year.

Thanks to members Annie Baker and Lili Rollins, who contributed to this report.
Photos courtesy Rory Earnshaw