One of my pastimes is participating in a small blogging group made up of chefs, restaurant owners and serious gourmet cooks living in the Portland, Oregon area. A few months ago someone posted a question asking for advice on selecting kitchen cutlery. The suggestions started with the better-known German and Japanese professional grade knives. Given Kershaw is a Portland area company, it wasn’t too surprising that Shun knives were mentioned favorably several times. What did astonish me was how the posts quickly turned into a discussion of Thai-made Kom-Kom and Kiwi cutlery. Poster after poster stated they had found these inexpensive Asian knives to be superior to some of the better-known cooking lines. One professional chef, who had been to Thailand, even made the comment that, “Ten million Thai cooks can’t be wrong!”
As I mentioned in one of my past columns, I first encountered the Kiwi brand in a local combination Cambodian grocery store and restaurant. The owner had a box of $2 utility models sitting among all the gallon cans of soy sauce, dried noodles, woks and bulk rice sacks. It was when I noticed this was the same knife she used for most of the restaurant’s kitchen work that I actually became interested. At $2, what did I have to lose? I have since acquired and used several other Kiwi and Kom-Kom knives (both brands are from the same factory but I have the impression the Kom-Kom is considered a slightly higher quality grade) enough to have formed some opinions on the subject.
The Quality Question
For starters, while the maker describes their products as being made of “high quality stainless steel,” the knives are extremely unlikely to be much more than a 440A equivalent. Frankly, there is a much better chance it is the same 420J2 favored by many low-end Asian cutlery makers. For some reason, trying to persuade kitchen cutlery makers to tell you the actual grade of steel they use is always like pulling teeth. Kiwi grinds their knives on modern made-in-Germany equipment and they produce a full line of both Western and Asian styles. Only the Asian patterns seem to be exported to the U.S. in any numbers.
So why are all these pros enamored of these Thai blades? I tend to think it is because most of the standard models are much thinner blade stock than the equivalent Japanese or Western knives. The thin cross section gives the knives two distinct advantages. First off, most raw foods, both meat and vegetables, are relatively soft. An ultra thin blade parts its cut with less friction than a thicker blade that must wedge its way through the same material.
The second advantage is that a thin blade is easier to sharpen to fine edge than a thicker model. Despite the conventional wisdom that carbon steel takes a “sharper edge” than stainless, almost all of the bloggers described the Thai knives as being keener than any other blade in their kitchen block. A thin blade requires less metal be removed to reach razor sharpness, which in turn means there is less chance of bungling the job.
Like I said, I’ve been using these knives off and on for a couple of decades. The thin blade stock is certainly an advantage for making micro slices in soft material. On the other hand, I wish they made their Thai-style “cleaver” just a bit thicker, as it tends to be a little too flexible for chopping and dicing chores.
Another word to the wise. While there are a couple of web sources for the knives, the least expensive (as in well under $10) place to buy them is in a Viet, Cambodian, Lao or Thai grocery. I can’t speak for the rest of the country, but around here any major size community will have one or more Asian groceries. If this is not an option, the “Wok Shop” (www.wokshop.com; 415-989-3797) in San Francisco carries a fairly extensive line of the Kiwi models. The Temple of Thai (www.templeofthai.com; 877-811-8773) also carries a few models in both the Kiwi and Kom-Kom lines.
I don’t consider these knives to be the end-all-do-all of kitchen cutlery, but at the price, they are handy to have around for jobs that require an ultra thin, sharp blade.
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