Omi, Kobe and Matsusaka. Three magic words guaranteed to brighten the day of a beef connoisseur, especially if followed by a slab of the above, sizzling on a hot plate.
In the ever-expanding world of wagyu - literally Japanese (wa) beef (gyu) - these brands are the gold standard by which other cows are measured. Ever since the world got a taste of this melt-in-the-mouth meat, it has been on the menus everywhere from Michelin-starred restaurants to neighbourhood steakhouses trying to pass off cheaper grades of Australian wagyu as the real McCoy.
WHAT'S SO GREAT ABOUT WAGYU
"Shimofuri," explains Lim Li Wei, CEO of Emporium Shokuhin. That's the mesmerizing web of fat distributed across the raw red meat "which contains more omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids than other beef". The more fat there is, the more of that rich, buttery flavor, and of course, the more money you have to part with. Matsusaka leads the pack at around $550 per kg, while Omi is relatively more reasonable at $380 per kg.
Omi, which is retailed at Emporium Shokuhin along with the Miyazaki brand, is famous for being the oldest source of purebred wagyu with an almost 120-year history, says Mr Lim. "Its high marbling with unique aroma and tenderness is highly prized in Japan."
"Naturally, Japan has the highest number of pure bred cattle," says Andre Huber, executive director of Huber's Butchery. Therefore, they have the purest and best genetics that allow farmers to "figure out the best way to feed the cattle to achieve the greatest amount of marbling."
AUSTRALIA VERSUS US VERSUS JAPAN
Not all wagyu are created equal. The Japanese cows have cousins in Australia and the US which follow a different marbling system.
In the 70s, says Mr Lim, Japanese bulls were imported to the US for cross breeding with their Angus cattle. Australia did the same in the 1990s. So when you buy wagyu from Australia, it is not 100 per cent Japanese.
But the cross breeding also means that "the wagyu genetics is not 100 per cent and therefore it is not easy to achieve marbling like the pure bred in Japan," says Mr Huber. "It produces wagyu with a different taste and texture."
IT'S A COW'S LIFE
All the stories you hear about Japanese cows enjoying good food, an occasional beer and massages are all true.
The cattle, which are fed special grain diets and slaughtered when they are 30 to 46 months, "live in a relaxed environment to prevent tough muscles from forming," says Mr Lim.
Mr Huber adds that everything from environment to the water they drink determines the quality of the meat.
Even then, how good it is still depends on the grading.
The Japan Meat Grading Association rates according to the yield and meat quality. Other factors are: marbling; colour and brightness; firmness and texture; and fat colour, luster and quality. There are three yield grades: A, B or C, with A being the best. Marbling is classified into five grades, from one to five, with five being the highest.
Australian wagyu in turn have marbling scores of four to nine with nine being the highest. US wagyu is graded as Gold which is prime, and Black for normal.
WHICH WAGYU IS GOOD FOR YOU?
If economic conditions aren't an issue, snap up some Matsusaka from Swiss butchery, or SoHo wagyu from Kagoshima at Isetan.
But grouping wagyu by prefecture or even beef by country is not a true indication of quality, feels Mr Huber. "Every farm has its own way of raising the animal."
Toriyama Umami Wagyu, for one, prides itself not only on its marbling but for its beefy flavor. Most other wagyu tend to have that melt-in-your-mouth texture but can sometimes lack flavor, which happens when there is more oleic acid than amino acids.
In wagyu, the higher the percentage of oleic acid in the total fat content, the juicier the fat. The higher the amount of amino acids in the meat, the stronger the beef tastes.
Toriyama breeds cows which produce a high umami level. In other words, the beef has high amino acids while retaining their high oleic acid.
Then there is also Joshu wagyu that FoodXervices imports. Mr Hiroshi Ishihara, who has three decades of experience in beef, likes Joshu because he personally knows the farmers and their strict practices.
That said, while he can tell the different grades of wagyu, even he finds it difficult to differentiate the taste of an A5 across different brands. "The difference in taste is very subtle," he says.
To get the best from your wagyu, master chef Hiroshi Ishii of Keyaki in Pan Pacific Singapore recommends cooking it teppanyaki-style or pan-fried to medium rare doneness for the melt-in-the-mouth texture."
Mr Ishihara prefers that the A5 be cooked in shabu-shabu or sukiyaki, so that excess fat can be rendered away. The A3 is ideal in steak form.
To make sure you're getting the real thing, Mr Lim recommends looking for the 'Wagyu Japanese Beef' logo that is provided by the Japan Livestock Industry Association. "You can also ask to see the certification which comes with a special 10-digit combination that can be traced back to where the cattle was raised and sold," he adds.
Mr Huber says, "The most important thing is to trust the butcher or the restaurant you visit that they are selling authentic wagyu."
This story was originally published in The Business Times.