I'd never thought of the comparisons between the finest Kobe beef and Champagne until they were explained in remarks by the Vice Governor of Hyogo Prefecture and a representative from the Kobe beef Association: "Sparkling wine is produced all over the world but only wine made in Champagne can carry that name - it's the same for Kobe beef. There are other rules for the ageing period which are similar to Kobe beef rules. Kobe also has a smell like a peach and vanilla because it contains more vanillin than any other beef. So Kobe beef is like Dom Pérignon."
The exchange came as part of a visit to Kobe and Tokyo with Hisato Hamada, the founder of cult beef restaurant brand Wagyumafia, along with five very talented chefs from around the world for the inaugural 'Kobe Beef Summit'.
It included a rare visit to a Kobe beef auction, up in the mountains north of the city of Kobe, where farmers would offer gifts to the purchasers of their highly-prized and loved animals, some of which would sell for $70,000 each. Visits also explained the history and terroir that makes these wagyu and their meat so distinct, while there was also a reminder that they're not massaged, fed beer or played classical music, as some urban myths would have you believe.
- It’s the rearing method that makes wagyu beef so expensive.
- To qualify for the wagyu mark in Japan, the cattle must be reared and fed in accordance with strict guidelines.
- Breeding cattle are grazed on pasture and calves are fed with a special feed to ensure the high level of marbling.
- At seven months old, they are sold to fattening farms, where they are raised in barns on a diet of rice straws and crop silage for three years.
- Every cow has a birth certificate and can be traced back to a specific farm.
How to choose the best wagyu beef
When choosing wagyu beef one of the main things you want to consider is the type of cut – the finest cuts come from the rib area and are in high demand for their tenderness. The same is true of the loin and sirloin, which come from the back of the cow. The flank and shank tend to be tougher and better suited to soups or stews. Wagyu beef is graded according to its marbling and should be a bright cherry red in colour when fresh.
Three award-winning chefs, all based in Hong Kong, also weigh in with their advice on choosing and cooking wagyu.
Vicky Lau from one Michelin-starred Tate Dining Room in Hong Kong, argues that the most important thing to look for in the market is "of course the quality of the meat. It should be red in colour, the texture should look firm and not loose, then next would be the fat and meat distribution. For the restaurant, I like to use tenderloin and striploin. In general, tenderloin works well due to its texture being more accepting and it's also a bit more forgiving when it comes to cooking - if it’s slightly over or under, because it's not as obvious".
Chef Lau's personal favourite is sirloin cut. "I like to trim it nicely then cook it in a very hot oven, around 210° C for 30 seconds and take it out, let it rest and put back in again for 30 seconds each time until the desired doneness. With this, it concentrates the flavour while cooking it. Another way that I really like is the Korean way. Make a marinade with pear juice, soy sauce, honey, onion, pepper. Marinade sirloin for 12 hours and then grill the meat on charcoal."
Nate Green is a renowned chef and meat specialist at newly-opened Henry at Hong Kong's Rosewood Hotel. His choice is hybrid wagyu, currently a Black Angus-wagyu hybrid. "Pure breed Japanese wagyu has to be eaten in context, for example shabu shabu where high fat levels translate well to dishes" he says. "At Henry's we tend to dry-aged cross-breed wagyu for up to 45 days and use them for steak and steak tartare. Where we would use Japanese pure-breed wagyu is charcuterie, especially things like bresaola, with the fillets being so high in fat they make a very good air-dried ham."
Agustin Balbi runs Haku where his innovative Japanese cuisine has Spanish influences. When he needs to pick up the perfect wagyu he looks for "three different main characteristics when choosing cuts: first the origin as it is important what area the cow was raised in and the climate conditions of that area. Then marbling, as for a great wagyu you must have a great marbling of fat, but not over the top of not will became too fatty. Lastly of course is taste, that beef flavour and not just soft a texture, which is why usually I go for southern wagyu. My favourite way to prepare it is on a charcoal grill, natural style with a strong fire at first and then softly on the side."
Top chefs' signature dishes with Kobe beef
Most of all though it was the preparation and eating of the remarkable produce, especially so when trying the wagyumafia dishes which have made celebrities such as David Beckham and Ed Sheeran big fans of the brand. In a special one-off dinner at the end of the week, the chefs each then crafted their own very special take on one of the world's most celebrated and expensive meats: Richard Ekkebus from Hong Kong's Amber restaurant, Tomos Parry from London's Brat, Richie Lin from Mume in Taiwan, Jordy Navarra from Manila's Toyo Eatery and Paul Carmichael from Momofuku Seibo in Sydney all joined for a week of culinary exploration and discovery.
Dry-aged striploin with seaweed, kabocha pumpkin and steak sauce
"I wanted to do dishes really in the spirit of wagyumafia: great ingredients, very simple and clean. For example the pumpkin for the kabocha puree with the 147 dry-aged striploin is cooked for an hour wrapped in thin slices of wagyu fat because I really wanted to capture all the flavour of the fat in it.
Then I also have done a bluefin tuna neck in two structures of tartare, a very fine tartare and a coarser one. I've seasoned it with wagyu fat and then I made a broth of tuna with Kobe bone marrow into it. A little heart-stopper! The tartare is topped with some caviar."
Yuzu tongue caviar
"I chose to use the Tanmoto, the bottom cut of Kobe beef tongue, grilled over binchotan charcoal in our hibachi grill. It's marinated for ten hours with Kobu-shime, a type of kelp. Then there's homemade white truffle honey from Sadogashima island and Kobe beef fat for a winter truffle sauce. It's finished with thin-sliced manganji pepper, classic caviar and then what we call 'mountain caviar' or tonburi - they're the dried seeds from a summer cypress tree, a speciality of Akita prefecture. The dish is finished with grated yuzu zest, gold leaf from Kanazawa and surrounded by chrysanthemum flowers - because they're the emblem of Kobe beef!"
Uchibara negima skewer with green sauce
"I'm using the belly of the beef, you hear about the sirloin and those kind of cuts but the wagyu belly and offal I've found extraordinary. It shows you can achieve something else with these cuts. You never know what you're going to find out on your travels, a couple days ago we had some belly cooked from raw, yakiniku-style, which was phenomenal. I'm serving it cooked over binchotan charcoal and served with a classic green sauce that has a lot of Japanese parsley in there."
Shank, bagoong, peanut, vegetables
"It's a kare-kare which is a Philippine stew with a rich savoury peanut sauce. I take wagyu beef shank and add bagoong, a pungent krill paste we make at Toyo, then Japanese veggies. This is beautiful beef so we're lucky to get to work with some of the best product in the world. We have some prime cuts, some stew cuts. In the wagyumafia style this dish is more homely, what a Filipino would make in Tokyo."
Jerk chateaubriand sandwich
"I'm making fried bread with some grilled wagyu, just using the pieces everyone else doesn't use! I wanted to make something I thought would be tasty and unique to Japan because you start with something really good. There's kind of a jerk seasoning including habañero, scallions, garlic and ginger then I'm cooking it on the Josper grill. It's served with two sauces I made here with some exotic fruits, fish sauce and some of the wagyu garum that has been knocking around that Hisato-san had made. It's very soy in flavour but also has that beefiness, it's super delicious. Overall, I've learnt a lot this week, met some really cool people - and Kobe is a beautiful place."
Milk fig with dry-aged beef fat
"I'm using the inner thigh of the Kobe beef in a raw tartare dish. It's one of the few cuts that is not too fatty, little bit more meaty so it has a good bite even when it's raw. I'm combining it with something more Taiwanese to show the connection between Taiwan and the produce so I bought a special seasoning, a prawn oil, almost like a fish sauce. Super umami, very savoury and concentrated, use it to season the tartare. Also a wild pepper oil just to give a finishing touch. I'm also rendering down some of the beef fat, that very aged taste, to combine with a mirin ice cream and a nice fig we bought from Toyosu market yesterday."