Cover Image: Ryuta Kawano at the Japan Society © Kaori Mahajan for WhereNYC
Bottom Line: The term wagyu is synonymous with high quality beef. Although famed for its high marbled fat and exceptional taste, what do we really know about it? The Japan Society, in collaboration with ABC Cooking Studios Ltd., Prof. Daniel Botsman, the Norinchukin Bank and agricultural federation Zen-Noh showed us how Japanese wagyu became the world’s best beef.
Review: Surrounded by the wafting heavenly aromas of sizzling beef fat, onions, shitake mushrooms and shiso, chef Jennifer Suzuki and her charming associate, Lina Takahashi, from ABC Cooking Studios Ltd, gave a tantalizing demo on stage. On the big screen, we watched Jennifer slice an expensive block of perfectly marbled, high quality wagyu. With each precision cut, she glided her knife as if it were going through melted butter.
The audience squirmed in their seats while Jennifer teasingly batted her eyelashes, knowing the sheer torture everyone must have felt. “Don’t worry. You’ll be eating wagyu beef very soon,” she giggled and continued on with her demo. It had been both an informative and highly entertaining evening. And although the legendary beef is considered to be among the famous Japanese ingredients such as rice and fish, wagyu follows a more recent culinary tradition in Japan.
Historically, according to Yale professor Dr. Daniel Botsman, the Japanese began eating beef less than a 150 years ago and in limited quantity. Restricted to a shogun’s occasional diet, Edo Japan largely forbade beef consumption and strictly prohibited the slaughter of cattle. The reason was rice, Japan’s most important commodity. And like the sacred cows of India, the Japanese also used them to plow their rice fields while the manure served as fertilizer. With the eventual industrial mechanization and presence of beef-loving Westerners, the cow’s sacred place in Japan gradually diminished, as more Japanese started to eat beef. Nevertheless, cultural stigmas about beef and those in the industry still persisted even in recent times. To change public opinion, Japan’s wagyu producers, working at an unbelievable high standard, embarked on making the best beef possible.
Today, Japan’s competitive high end beef industry includes big brand names such as: Hida, Kobe and Matsuzaka. Ryuta Kawano of Zen Noh, who has worked with the beef industry for over two decades, explained wagyu’s uniqueness. Among Japan’s four pure cattle breeds, 95% of the wagyu produced comes from the Black shorthorn cow, which has the highest marbling fat.
Perhaps a nod to the once revered status of cows in Edo Japan, wagyu cattle farmers today still treat their animals with tremendous respect and in the best hygienic conditions. Each beast has a name, receives individual care, massage, and the finest wheat, corn and rice straws, the latter contributing most to the marbling fat. Mr. Kawano also compared the characteristic aroma of wagyu, interestingly to peaches and coconut. And in terms of texture, its high content of unsaturated fatty acids, gives it the perfect melt-in-the-mouth quality. Finally, beef in Japan is rated by two criterions: A-E and 5-1. With A/5 being the highest and, of course, most expensive premium grade.
Following the talk, ABC Studio ‘s Jennifer and Lina finished preparing two beef dishes on stage. The first was a traditional beef hotpot, or sukiyaki, with beef, onions, mushrooms and cabbage simmered in a sweet, tare or caramelised umami-flavored sauce. For the second, Jennifer seared a block of premium cut wagyu, before slicing sashimi style cuts. She then made perfect blocks of sushi rice using a battera box, finally layering with the beef tataki slices and a garnish of wasabi.
With the demo done, the guests headed into the lobby for an aperitif and a plateful of wagyu goodies. Each dish had a beautiful display of premium grade beef tataki and rice burger from Yonekichi of braised meat with a hint of chili. The flavor of both items were exceptional. The beef tataki had the most amazing texture, and while the rice burger delivered on taste, it was absolutely stone cold by the time it reached the table. With an open bar of dry sake, beer, wine and non-alcoholic beverages, guests, industry reps and speakers mingled during the reception. As we exited, each guest who took the ABC Cooking Studio survey, received a token tote bag ideal for any beef bento box, perhaps as a suggestion of what to take for tomorrow’s lunch.