The prized Kobe beef, hailed as the best premium Japanese beef from Tajima-gyu cattle from the Hyogo prefecture, is now available in Singapore.
Cuts such as sirloin, tenderloin and ribeye grilled over almond wood will be served exclusively for two months at Cut, celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck's steakhouse at Marina Bay Sands.
Before last year, certified Kobe beef was not exported out of Japan. The first export was to Macau in February last year, under the regulation of the Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association. It is the only organisation that can certify authentic Kobe beef, with 281 registered farmers on board.
The juicy meat is now also available in Hong Kong, Thailand and the United States. In Japan, there are 220 "certified users", mainly restaurants that can carry Kobe beef.
Ensuring that the beef is 100 per cent authentic Kobe beef is a big challenge for the association. Mr Yoshihiko Sowa, 55, secretariat of the association, says in Japanese via a translator: "The No. 1 headache is making sure that the product is authentic. Consumers need to be aware of the certification and criteria."
The sweet marbled meat has a 10-digit individual identification number which can be traced back to where the cattle was raised.
Since 2005, the association had been trying to export Kobe beef, but its slaughterhouse standards were deemed "not up to par" for the United States, adds Mr Sowa.
Japanese beef imports here were impacted by the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy - commonly known as Mad Cow Disease - which broke out in Japan in September 2001. The ban was lifted in April 2009.
Since then, imports of Japanese beef have been steadily increasing.
In 2010, 15 tonnes of beef were imported from Japan. This increased by four times to 61 tonnes last year. For the first half of this year, 33 tonnes of beef have been imported, out of which 22 tonnes are from the Kagoshima prefecture. Also popular are Saga, Miyazaki and Iwate beef.
Under the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority's regulations, all meat products must come from sources approved by the AVA to ensure that they meet its food safety, veterinary public health and animal health requirements.
Mr Zhang Yong Qiang, manager of Japanese barbecue restaurant Magosaburou at Ion Orchard, notes the increase in demand for beef and does not rule out bringing in Kobe beef.
He says: "Kobe beef is generally recognised as the No.1 beef. There are many comparable, if not higher, quality beef such as the Miyakonojo beef we imported two months ago. If we can get the right supplier, Kobe beef will be on our list."
Other chefs point out that there are many kinds of Japanese beef that are just as delicious. For instance, chef Kazuhiro Hamamoto of Ki-sho at Scotts Road says Hida beef from the Gifu prefecture is one of his top picks.
He says: "Hida beef meets every standard as a top quality beef. Unlike other Japanese beef where A5 is the top grade, the highest grade for Hida beef is A12.
"Kobe beef is one of the best Japanese beef. It has fine fibre, marbling and a good combination of beef taste and fat which melts in your mouth. However, some people may find it a bit heavy on their palate."
The Big Idea's group executive chef Dan Segall says: "Kobe beef is not a product that I have 100 per cent confidence in. Most importantly, the enjoyment of beef is a culmination of a few factors, including the way it has been butchered, transported over, stored, handled and cooked, among other things."
Fat Cow, which is owned by The Big Idea, serves Saga, Ohmi and Iwate beef, bought directly from the farms in Japan.
The executive chairman of technology firm Stratech Systems, Mr David Chew, 55, has eaten authentic Kobe beef "several times" on annual trips to Tokyo with his family.
He says: "I enjoy Kobe beef because it is of high quality and it isn't readily available in Singapore. I would buy other Japanese beef to cook at home instead.
"While I don't ask to see the certification for Kobe beef in the restaurants that I dine in, it's difficult to dispute them as they wouldn't offer 10 different kinds of beef. They will definitely serve the best Kobe.
"I believe that among all the Japanese beef, it may be difficult to distinguish the flavour and marbling because they are all of premium quality. It is only when you compare it to the wagyu beef from Australia or the United States that you can see and taste the difference."
GUIDE TO JAPANESE BEEF
What: The term means Japanese cow and refers to various types of Japanese cattle known for their premium marbled meat.
What: This premium beef comes from pureblood, 100 per cent Tajima-gyu cattle from the Hyogo Prefecture, raised over 30 months. Only cows that have a marbling index of No. 6 or higher, pass a weight limitation and other criteria, can be certified as Kobe beef. The Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association in Japan is the only organisation that can authorise restaurants to sell Kobe beef. Each restaurant has a certificate of authenticity to prove that it sells 100 per cent Kobe beef. The juicy meat is sweet and does not taste too fatty.
Where: Cut, Marina Bay Sands, B1-71, Galleria Level
Price: $210 to $300 for sirloin, ribeye or tenderloin
Info: Call 6688-8517 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
What: Not authentic Kobe beef. Instead, the meat is likely to be Japanese cattle cross-bred with other breeds of cattle, such as Angus.
What: From the livestock prefecture of Kagoshima. The most popular wagyu is the Kuroge.
Where: Nadaman, Shangri-La Hotel Singapore, 22 Orange Grove Road; Magosaburou, Ion Orchard, 2 Orchard Turn 04-11A & 05-01; and Mikuni, Fairmont Singapore, Level 3
Price: From $100 per 100g (Grade four from Nadaman)
What: From the Kansai region of Japan, it is said to be of similar quality to Kobe beef and has a high level of marbling.
Where: Magosaburou; Fat Cow, Camden Medical Centre, 1 Orchard Boulevard, 01-01/02; Shabu Shabu Gen, Shaw Centre, 1 Scotts Road, 02-13; Aoki, Shaw Centre, 1 Scotts Road, 02-17; Kuriya Dining, Great World City, 1 Kim Seng Promenade, 01-28
Price: From $120 a 150g (Grade A4 ribeye from Fat Cow)
What: The prized meat from black-haired Japanese cattle comes from Gifu prefecture. It has a robust beef flavour and although well-marbled, is not cloyingly rich.
Where: Ki-Sho, 29 Scotts Road; Shabu Shabu Gen
Price: $300 for 1kg
What: This flavourful meat, from Saga prefecture, has a rich and sweet taste. The tender meat has fine marbling. It is considered one of the top three meats in Japan, along with Kobe and Matsuzaka.
Where: Fat Cow, Shabu Shabu Gen, Aoki
Price: From $89++ a 110g (Grade A3 tenderloin from Fat Cow)
What: The most famous beef from the prefecture is Maesawa, which is produced in Oshu City.
Where: Fat Cow
Price: From $148++ a 150g (Grade A5 ribeye); Wagyu No Sashimi To Sudachi-Shio ($48++), which is Iwate beef seasoned with sudachi (a Japanese citrus fruit)
What: Black-haired cattle from the Mie prefecture in Japan produce Matsuzaka beef. It has dense marbling and a high fat-to-meat ratio. Although it is highly prized in Japan, SundayLife did not find any restaurants here that serve it.
What: Highly valued as the cattle are raised on the natural spring water in the Miyazaki prefecture, on the southern island of Kyushu.
Where: Jaan, Swissotel The Stamford, 2 Stamford Road; Indoguna, 34/36/38 Senoko Drive
Price: $198++ for five-course degustation menu at Jaan that features the beef.
What: Sweet and tender marbled meat from the Miyazaki prefecture.
Price: From $88 per 120g
What: Grassfed cattle from Hokkaido which feed on sweet local meadow grass, straw and corn to produce tender meat with robust flavour.
Where: Tajimaya and Shabuya, VivoCity, 1 HarbourFront Walk, 01-102/103
Price: $198 or $158 for seven-course set for two at Tajimaya and Shabuya respectively
This story was originally published in the Straits Times on July 28, 2013
To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to http://www.sphsubscription.com.sg/eshop/