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Traditional knives are cutting-edge again

  • Kitchen Accessories
By Meenakshi Nair
6 min read
Sep 20, 2022
Handmade knives use high-carbon steel

If mass-manufactured produce and products don’t excite you, time to look at your kitchen knives

In fashion, they say what’s old becomes new again in a decade or two. We’re witnessing a similar story in the kitchen as conscious consumers try to eat locally and go back to traditional methods of cooking. And kitchen tools are part of that story.

 

There’s a reason why your grandmother’s coconut scraper or butcher knife still holds place in her kitchen today: it is made of tougher stuff, built to last. And skilled hands made it. Back in the day local blacksmiths forged household knives using iron and high-quality steel, fitted on sturdy wood handles and brass bolsters (not screws). These became heirloom pieces passed down from one generation to the next.

 

The South, and Kerala in particular, has a rich metallurgical and metalsmith history. The Perum Kollan community (the blacksmiths in traditional Kerala society), craft agricultural implements, locks, and razor-sharp knives. The eponymous Mallapuram katthi (from the north Kerala district of Mallapuram) and the Ramachandran katthi from Palakkad are forged in skilled smithies of the region and are known for being compact and sharp.

 

Traditional knife-making is long and laborious: the metal for the blade is heated to an extremely high temperature, hammered into shape, and tempered in cool water to ensure it would not break under pressure, but retain its edge. The result is a knife that is strong, sturdy, and very, very sharp.

 

The sharpness of a blade depends on the quality of the metal used. Hundreds of years ago, Damascus steel was the alloy of choice for swords and knives. The key component of Damascus steel was Wootz steel: a form of high-carbon steel produced exclusively in Kerala and Tamil Nadu that was prized for its ductility, strength, and durability. Lore has it that Damascus blades (made from Wootz steel) could split a feather in mid-air and cut through rock, without losing its edge.

A Better Cut

While the process of making Wootz steel has been lost to time, a few brands are reviving the art of making handcrafted, high-carbon blades. Kerala-based brands Urukk Blades and Looms & Weaves specialise in handmade and customised knives, crafted the old way. (The word “urukk” is the Malayalam word for Wootz.) What sets these brands apart is the use of high and ultra-high carbon steel, which accounts for its sharpness, hardness, and flexibility: suitable for everything from slicing tomatoes to chopping meat. 

 

Looms and Weaves has 20+ specialised knives on offer, from butter knives and vegetable choppers to oyster knives and meat cleavers which work well in veggie-centric or meat-heavy households.

 

Christy Treasa George, founder at Looms and Weaves, launched the platform in 2010 as a women-owned social enterprise for handloom products and has since expanded to include spices, snacks, and Ayurveda.

Looms & Weaves was launched in 2010

Knives with brass bolsters ensures a better grip. Image courtesy, Looms & Weaves

The knife collection, launched in 2017, came about with a simple thought: why not add knives to the platform, considering everything available in the market is mass-produced Chinese stuff?
 

Looms & Weaves has 20+ type knives

Hand-sharpening gives these knives a razor-sharp edge. Image courtesy, Looms & Weaves

The Looms and Weaves team did extensive research which took them from Kutch to Kozhikode and beyond. By chance, they connected with two design scholars who were on a fieldwork project in Kerala and together, did a deep study of the blacksmith traditions in Kerala: in Malappuram, Muvatupuzha, Kozhikode and Palakkad. 

 

The team took what they learnt and gave the knife making process a complete facelift. They came up with a new design, multiple styles, and trained several blacksmiths to craft knives the Looms and Weaves way. (All their knives are made by artisans in Palakkad and Kozhikode.)

 

“We use ultra-high carbon steel and use the best file material possible to sharpen our knives. The knives are light, but very strong and sharp. Our bestsellers are the kitchen knife and the multiutility knife (for home use). We also get a lot of orders from farmers since the blade is great for working in the field and cutting crops,” says Christy.  


Trial by Fire

For pro chefs and cooking enthusiasts, the Urruk Blades collection presently offers 12 kinds of Japanese-style knives, crafted in Kerala, using traditional techniques that give the blade a razor-sharp edge. 

Founder and artisan Jesudas Puthumana is a Mechanical Engineer fascinated by Japanese bladesmith work, and Urukk is a passion project for him, which he describes as “an amalgamation of Indian tradition; Japanese geometry and aesthetics combined with modern Engineering methods and documentation.”

 

He’s worked with blacksmiths across Kerala and says the main problem is that an unbroken blacksmith tradition doesn’t exist in the state because much of the process remains undocumented. In Japan, on the other hand, the geometry and art of knife making is extremely well-documented and evolved. He has combined both cultures in his brand Urukk. 

 

“I cater to a niche market: professional chefs, mostly. The knives are made from ultra-high carbon steel and is susceptible to corrosion and chefs know how to care for these knives better.”

 

Each knife is handmade by Jesudas himself and completely customisable, for left and right-handed people, and even in terms of the dimensions. Several Mumbai-based chefs are fans (including Chef Hussain Shahzad of The Bombay Canteen) and word-of-mouth brings in a steady stream of orders from the city. Jesudas also gets orders from as far as the UK and the United States.

Urukk Blades collection

Traditional knives feature wooden handles. Image courtesy, Urukk blades

He follows a 12-step process in transforming raw steel billets to a fully functional kitchen knife, which includes an initial forging, followed by grinding, the second stage forging in which the unique serial number, heat treatment, and fixing the handle are completed. Each of the individual knives are finally hand-sharpened employing six sets of Whetstones for 2-4 hours for the perfect edge.

 

And it’s true what they say: the sharper the knife, the less you cry. You are far less likely to cut yourself in the kitchen with a sharp blade than a dull one, because: a dull blade = more pressure = more chances the knife may slip.

 

These knives do cut a bit of a hole in your pocket (no pun intended) compared to mass-produced plastic-handled knives at the corner shop. However, you’re paying for more than just a knife: it’s the level of skill, the material, and the time put into craft each piece. But with a shelf-life of a few generations, it’s a kitchen investment worth making. 

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