The Travel Knife: Don't Cleave Home Without It

Small knives perfect for travel

Small Japanese knives with wooden saya sheaths make perfect travel blades. [Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

Earlier this year I took a trip to Alaska with a group of chefs and food writers. We stayed at a remote lodge, accessible only by boat and seaplane. While there, we were invited to cook up a feast of Alaskan seafood. One chef grabbed a gleaming side of wild salmon, whipped out an oddly long and slim blade, and shaved the skin off in one quick swipe.

"What knife is that?" I asked.

"It's the knife I always travel with," he answered, explaining that it was a Japanese gyutou (chef's knife) that he'd sharpened down to a fraction of its original size over the course of many years.

Back home, I obsessed over the idea of finding my own travel knife. All my experience cooking away from home had involved either toting around a cumbersome professional knife bag, packed full of all the blades I could ever possibly need, or going empty-handed and using whatever was available where I went, which was never great.

Having spent enough weekends in Airbnb kitchens, I'd become all too familiar with the frustration of making do with the knives at my destination. It's not fun cooking dinner when a dull blade shreds and mashes every vegetable and piece of meat you touch (hence the case for keeping a good travel kitchen kit).

Your chances of finding a good knife wherever you're staying are next to nil. Most kitchen knives in house rentals started out as pieces of crap, became even worse after years of abuse in the hands of their owner, then got condemned to an eternity of still more horrific treatment from the carousel of guests that invade the place week after week. (Frankly, if you wanted to start a scrap-metal business focused on turning kitchen knives back into lumpy ingots of steel, putting them through rental-house kitchens would be a far more energy-efficient way to do it than melting them down in a furnace.)

When you're visiting family, it's rarely much better. The sad fact is that most folks don't own good knives, treat the ones they do have poorly, and rarely maintain them. In past years, I've carried my knife bag up to my mother-in-law's so I can cook a nice Christmas dinner for the family. Now that I'm also bringing a baby and all his attendant gear, that's not an appealing option anymore.

A travel knife is the solution to all of this—small enough to be stashed in a bag without taking up too much space, and sharp enough to get any job done, from slicing and dicing to butchering and carving.

The question I had to answer was what would make the ideal travel knife. I quickly set my focus on Japanese knives, just as the chef who inspired me had, for two reasons. First, they tend to be more lightweight than their heftier German counterparts. Second, they can be purchased with a wooden sheath known as a saya, an accessory not typically offered for kitchen knives of other origins.

The saya is so useful because it allows you to safely transport a single knife without a larger knife bag or case. It slides over the blade completely, then locks into place with a pin, so there's no chance the knife might wiggle its way free of its protective enclosure. You can rummage through your bags without any concern that the blade you packed might be lying in wait.

I ended up considering two options: the largest-size petty, which is the Japanese name for a paring knife, and the smallest-size gyutou, which is the name for a chef's knife.

The petty is an intriguing blade because, unlike many Western-style paring knives, it has a full heel, giving it the shape of a chef's knife in a smaller package. At its largest size, it has a six-inch blade, which is pretty close to chef's-knife territory. The smallest-size gyutou, meanwhile, has a blade measuring about seven inches, just an inch longer than the petty, and a bit wider as well.

I bought both, and have been traveling with them over the course of several months now. I've made more elaborate dinners at vacation rentals and the homes of family members, and, with every pass of the blade completely under my control, I've actually enjoyed doing so. The only hard part has been keeping my travel knife out of everyone else's hands.

The two specific knives I bought were a Misono carbon steel petty and a Suisin carbon steel gyutou. I like and recommend both, but you don't have to get those exact knives. I'm partial to carbon steel for its ease of sharpening and edge retention, but it does require more care to prevent the blade from rusting. Stainless steel options abound; the only key is to purchase knives that can be paired with a saya.

My hope was to arrive at a recommendation for one or the other, but I'm still torn. The petty's smaller dimensions make it ideal for transport, and it's more than able to take care of most cooking tasks, like dicing onions, cutting up a chicken, and more. But it struggles with tougher tasks; I wouldn't want to cut up a butternut squash with it.

The gyutou is slightly larger, so it won't slide into the pocket of a backpack or roller bag with the same discretion, but it has more muscle. I'd be perfectly willing to dice up a hard squash with it.

Ultimately, I see the advantages and disadvantages of each, so I'll leave it up to anyone who might consider buying one: Think about what you're most likely to cook and just how important a compact size is to you, then go with whichever one makes more sense for you.

Just keep in mind a couple of things. First, the saya rarely comes with a Japanese knife—it's an accessory you have to add to the order. You can buy these knives on Amazon, but getting the sayas for them through Amazon is unlikely. Japanese knife merchants, like Korin, are more likely to keep the appropriate sayas in stock.

Second, be mindful of the logistics of traveling with what is, for all intents and purposes, a deadly weapon. Before you head out the door, look into local laws about carrying knives wherever you're going. And if you'll be flying there, make sure you put your travel knife in a checked bag—forget it in your carry-on, and your travel knife will end its voyage early, in a TSA contraband box.