The Longest Knife

A knife with a five foot blade? Absolutely.

There has to be the biggest of everything in this world, from apples to zucchini. And there is a biggest zapple pie, too.

But in the world of kitchen knives, anything over one foot long, with perhaps a six inch handle, would be considered prodigious indeed. Still, to everything a season, and a purpose.

When a giant bluefin tuna, caught by line in the waters off the Japanese coast, freshly arrives at the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, it can fetch a startling price, reflective of the rarity of the fish as much as its size.

In January of this year, one single bluefin sold at auction for $396,700. It weighed over 750 pounds, and made diners, voracious for its prized meat, happy for days. With a fish like that, paradoxically economy is everything. Nothing is left to waste that can possibly be used, for sushi, sashimi, steaks, and stock.

So how best to cut the fish?  That is where the maguro bōchō knife comes in.

The most common versions of the knife run from one to two feet long, but a highly specialized blade runs to fully five feet in length, with a one foot-long handle to boot. For anyone that's counting, that is a total of 6 feet, taller than the average American male at 5 feet 10 inches tall.

Using this blade is a two-person operation: one to wield the blade, the other, braver person, to hold the fish. The whole point is to minimize waste in filleting.

The blade is capable of cutting the entire length of the fish, so it can be efficiently cut into four long pieces. The blade is flexible, and slightly curved to match the curvature of the tuna's spine.

In the hands of an expert, this operation of quartering the fish from shoulder to tail leaves almost no flesh at all on the spine.

Yoshiro Maruyama is the Raw Bar Chef at Blue Water Cafe, in Vancouver's Yaletown area. He is enthusiastic about the spectacle of the long knife.

"It is like a big show, a spectacle. Only at the fresh markets, and maybe once in awhile in front of a nice restaurant, right on the street. A crowd gathers, and the ceremonial cutting with the big blade is something you will always remember," says Maruyama.

He goes on to say that the practice is certainly not common, especially in these times when the tuna fishery is diminished. But, he smiles and adds, "I think even the Yakuza have been known to use this knife. It is a special instrument, amazing to see."

Yoshiro's raw bar has many knives, for specialized use, but his favorite, most often used knife is a made to order, wooden handled blade of 16 inches or so, downright modest in the context of the maguro bōchō big knife.

Wendy Yang, of Korin Japanese Trading, where you can actually buy these instruments, says the long knives are "highly specialized, rare, and quite beautiful."

It makes perfect sense, she says, to have a blade that long for a fish that big.

We are left to wonder, though, to what use the Yakuza may have turned it.