Whenever it comes to deciding the world's best beef, steak knives fly. Applying the phrase “to each his own”, respective diehard fans of the USDA prime rib, Italian fassone, Argentine asado and Japanese wagyu will always — pardon the pun — have a beef with each other.
But agreeing on the world's most expensive beef is a no-brainer. The clear winner is the kobe, a type of wagyu which hails from Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture in Japan. It is so highly prized and so rarely exported that only five countries worldwide (Hong Kong, Macau, the USA, Thailand and now, Singapore) have seen it pass through customs and straight onto the plates of a few privileged diners. The celebrated steakhouse CUT by Wolfgang Puck is the first restaurant ever in Singapore to serve the carnivorous delicacy here and did so this year for two months starting on July 22.
Kobe beef derives from the rare Tajima-gyu cows certified by the Kobe Beef Distribution & Promotion Council. The cows are also known as motoushi or pure-bred seed-stock cattle, which has maintained a pure bloodline since the Edo period (1615-1867) to present time. An authentic kobe steak can fetch a price of US$350 or more and buying it at retail price from Japan will set you back up to ¥40,000 ($500) per kg.
Like fugu (puffer fish) and bluefin tuna sashimi, kobe is one of Japan's most iconic luxury foods and national treasures. It even has its own registered trademark and a 10-digit number that allows people to trace information on where the piece of beef was produced and later sold at.
So what's with the hefty price tag? For starters, the beef is extremely scarce. Each year, about 5,500 heads of Tajima-gyu cattle are taken to the market but only 3,000 get certified as kobe beef after stringent checks. It makes up for just 0.06 percent of the total beef consumption in Japan with only 300 heads available annually for export.
Also, the cows possess an untarnished lineage, which in turn gives rise to the meat's exceptional taste: Tender, rich and uniquely sweet, the beautifully marbled beef literally dissolves in one's mouth. Protecting and conserving this flavour from the pedigreed cattle breed is a notoriously extensive process, thus incurring a high cost of production and a lofty retail price.
The term “mass production” is considered blasphemous in the world of kobe. Tajima-gyu cows are reared in a very lengthy and rigidly controlled process. Only bull and virgin Tajima-gyu cattle can be used for kobe beef and it takes 30 to 32 months for a cow to reach maturity, as compared to the regular Japanese Black breed of wagyu cattle, which takes two to four months less.
Growing up, these blessed bovines live a charmed life. They are fed a special diet of soybean, corn, barley and wheat bran on top of dried pasture forage and rice straw grass. Grazing on pasture grass is strictly not allowed and only top-quality mineral water fills their drinking troughs. Farmers are known to take the herd on daily walks, play classical music to relax them, and meticulously administer Japanese sake massages to the cattle to stimulate proper fat distribution.
Once mature, the cows are slaughtered and sent to the meat market. The carcasses, which must not weigh more than 400kg, are graded and assessed by the Japan Meat Grading Association according to four factors: Beef marbling, meat colour and brightness, firmness and texture of meat, and the colour, lustre and quality of fat. For example, the highest grades of kobe (Grade A5) requires the beef to hit a 25-percent marbling score as compared to the USDA prime which only entails 10 to 13 percent.
The marbled fat, or sashi, and the way the beef is cut, shimofuri, are responsible for the meat's delicious flavour. According to experts and red meat aficionados, the best ways to enjoy the meat wonder are to grill it steak, barbecue or shabu-shabu style. It is also eaten raw as sashimi and as a carpaccio starter.
Sadly, it is impossible to find authentic kobe beef in Singapore after CUT's two-month promotion ended. But our fingers are crossed in the hope that there will be more of the world's most extravagant beef in time to come.
Alternatively, take a trip to Japan and visit the Mitsukoshi department store where a good-sized 870g portion costs ¥31,500 ($400). There are also a multitude of specialised kobe beef restaurants in the Land of the Rising Sun, of which the most famous are Wakkoqu in Kobe and 511 in Akasaka. The Old Holmstead Steakhouse in Manhattan, Yamazato at Hotel Okura Macau and Kobe Steak House in Bangkok are also frequently patronised by those who need their kobe fix.
Top of the Wagyu List
The word “wagyu” is a general descriptive term and encompasses the different kinds of beef produced from several varieties of Japanese cattle. Kobe, along with matsuzaka and omi, make up the top three premium types of wagyu beef. The biggest difference between these three is the flavour of the fat. Matsuzaka beef has very pronounced and rich meaty flavour, omi has an earthy, mineral taste whereas kobe is velvety and sweet.
Only virgin female cows raised in Matsuzaka, Mie Prefecture may be slaughtered for matsuzaka beef. Some Japanese consider this brand of wagyu better than kobe based on its extremely tender texture. In Japan, buying a mere 150g of this meat can cost up to 10,000 yen ($130). This exquisite meat is unfortunately not yet available in Singapore.
Less well-known but still equally delicious, omi has an illustrious history as the meat of choice of the shōgun (military governor) and his feudal lords over 140 years ago, despite beef consumption being banned during that time. Today, the meat which comes from the Shiga Prefecture continues to delight diners. Pan Pacific Singapore launched a Grade A5 Omi Wagyu menu promotion at its restaurants Edge, Hai Tien Lo and Keyaki in August 12-31 this year. In Japan, expect to pay about 8,500 yen ($100) for 180g of omi beef sirloin.