(THE STAR) - Just as champagne is sparkling wine that is produced in the Champagne region in France, Kobe beef is wagyu beef that comes from the city of Kobe in Japan's Hyogo prefecture.
Yes, Kobe beef is wagyu beef. And although Kobe is considered one of the top grade editions of wagyu in Japan, director of Japan Wagyu Export Promotion Committee Tsuyoshi Hishinuma insists that all authentic Japanese wagyu beef is of high quality.
Hishinuma said this at a recent Japanese Wagyu Beef Seminar and Information Exchange held in Kuala Lumpur. The event was organised by the Japan Livestock Products Export Promotion Council and was also attended by the Minister of Agriculture and Agro-based Industry, Datuk Seri Ahmad Shabery Cheek, who said that wagyu was the diamond of all the beef varieties.
Last year, Malaysia approved the import of wagyu beef from Japan after two processing plants there passed the Department of Islamic Development's (Jakim) audits for halal compliance. The plants are Zenkai Meat Corporation of the Kumamoto Prefecture and Nishiawa Beef of Tokushima Prefecture.
This means that halal wagyu beef from Japan is now commercially available in Malaysia. It won't be long until we see the premium meat being served at more restaurants and stocked at selected supermarkets. However, to ensure that the meat you're buying is both authentic Japanese wagyu and certified halal, you must look for the official logo - an outline of a cow's head against the backdrop of the Japan flag, with the words "Beef JAPAN" written across - on the package.
"If there is no logo, then the meat is not from Japan," said Hishinuma.
What is authentic Japanese wagyu beef?
Literally, the word wagyu is a combination of two words (wa and gyu) that mean "Japanese beef". Although wagyu originates from Japan, over the years several countries have also become official producers of the meat, namely Australia and the United States.
This is part of the reason exported Japanese wagyu comes with its own logo - it is a way to distance itself from the rest and to assure authenticity to international consumers.
There are four breeds of cattle in Japan that produce wagyu, with the Japanese Black making up the bulk of the number of cattle available today. The other breeds are Japanese Brown, Japanese Polled and Japanese Shorthorn.
Each breed also comes with a few strains or types.
To date, 97 per cent of the cattle that produce wagyu around the globe are bred in Japan; 65 per cent of that are the Japanese Black cattle. Japan is the biggest breeder and producer of "fullblood wagyu" cattle or cattle that come from 100 per cent wagyu pedigree. There is also the purebred wagyu or cattle with more than 93 per cent wagyu lineage, and several types of crossbreeds.
There are three brands that are considered "Sandai wagyu" or top grade wagyu - Kobe, Matsusaka and Omi - and these are only produced in Japan. Cattle for these brands are in limited supply and their meat has a higher fat-to-meat ratio, which translates into better-tasting and more tender beef and of course, a higher selling price.
The Sandai wagyu are also not easily available outside of Japan as only selected chefs, restaurants and supermarkets in a handful of countries have been approved to serve or sell it.
Farm to market
The process of producing wagyu beef is regulated to ensure quality, but it does have some variations based on the cattle breed and strain. Generally, calves live on breeding farms until they are about eight months old, or reach a certain weight (between 260kg and 290kg), and then sold to a fattening farm.
At the fattening farm, they are fed "nutrifood", a combination of corn, soy, wheat and high quality rice straw.
"The rice straw is important because it is good for digestion and helps produce muscle," said Hishinuma.
Contrary to popular belief, the cattle are not fed beer during the summer to stimulate growth. Hishinuma said that perhaps earlier breeders did use beer or even sake in their feed many decades ago but breeding processes have changed and improved vastly and today, alcohol is no longer on the menu for the cattle.
"Besides, beer is expensive!" he said, half-jokingly.
The fattening period stretches for about 600 days, or until a cow reaches its goal weight - that's between 780kg and 800kg! The cattle are sold, this time to butcheries and exporters, just before that and then slaughtered once they are between 28 and 30 months old.
Lastly, a cow's carcass weight (weight of the cow after all its internal organs and inedible parts are removed) needs to be between 450kg and 490kg.Every Japanese beef product in the market comes with a unique 10-digit serial number that allows buyers and consumers to get detailed background information on the cow. This strict traceability system not only adds to the assurance of a safe product, but also the value of the meat.
Grading system and characteristics
The selling point of any wagyu is its high fat-to-meat ratio, which you can see from the beautiful marbling of fat, meat and muscle.
If you're concerned about the word "fat", do note that wagyu is rich in Omega-3 fatty acids and contains mostly monounsaturated fats, or the good kind of fat, if you will. Because of that, wagyu has a lower melting point (26 deg C to 30 deg C) than other types of beef.
Of course, there's more to wagyu than just its fatty goodness. The meat is no doubt more tender but it is also more flavourful, thanks to the cow's specific and controlled diet. There's also that distinct "wagyu aroma" which Hishinuma describes as coconutty …
While not exactly accurate, the smell of melting fat and grilled wagyu meat does give off a kind of nutty aroma that would make one's mouth water.
All Japan beef also comes with a grade, as set by the Japan Meat Grading Association. Grading is divided into two categories - yield and meat quality. For meat quality, a five-step evaluation is made on the following four points: Marbling, colour and shine of meat, firmness and texture, and fat colour and shine (with Grade 5 as the highest).
Yield grades are for judging the final meat ratio, where carcasses are placed in A, B, C categories (A being the best).
Typically, wagyu holds either an A4 or A5 grade.
Cut and cook
Wagyu sold at supermarkets is usually pre-cut into slices, according to what they would be used for. Very rarely would you find a big slab of uncut sirloin, for example, sitting out on the chiller shelves. This is because wagyu is expensive - depending on grade, Japanese wagyu imported into Malaysia could be priced from RM2,000 (S$678.17) per kilo - and you would need a knowledgeable butcher or chef to cut the meat into smaller pieces without wasting anything.
At the seminar in KL, guests were shown how basic cuts were made and which parts of a cow would be good for what dish. Chuck rolls, shoulder clods, loins, short ribs and parts of the neck are great for sukiyaki, shabu-shabu, grilling and steaks.For stews, use a brisket, while rump is good for making roast beef.
Thin strips of meat for sukiyaki and shabu-shabu are usually machine-sliced for size consistency. For steaks, stir fries and barbecues, some fat and muscle around the meat cuts need to be trimmed first before cooking.
The trimmed pieces can be used to flavour soups, stews or just fried up until they're crunchy and sprinkled on salads, rice and more. You can also mix the pieces with non-wagyu beef to amp up a dish.
Finally, "piece meat", the remaining pieces on a carcass after all the primal and retail cuts are trimmed, is used for ground meat.