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Pursuits: The more you know about Wagyu, the less you understand the concept

It’s the kind of beef that most of us had never heard of a decade ago.

But now, expensive restaurants all over the world brag about serving Kobe or Wagyu beef. Sometimes this beef is used for steaks. And at times, it even turns up in

hamburgers. But no matter what the dish is, the term ‘Wagyu’ guarantees that it will be exorbitantly priced.


   I’ve written about Wagyu before. But each time I research an article on the subject, I am astonished by the new things I learn. And, by the time the article is finished, I come to the conclusion that the more you know about Wagyu, the less you understand the concept.


   Currently, a controversy has broken out in America after the columnist Larry Olmstead wrote a series of columns in Forbes, arguing that the rise of Kobe beef in the US was based on a scam. All of the so-called Kobe available in America, he said, was bogus. Not one steak was the real thing.


   I thought I knew where Olmstead was coming from. When I first started eating Kobe beef in the early 1990s, I only knew that it was very expensive because the flesh was marbled with fat which gave the beef a uniquely buttery taste. In those days, Kobe beef was rarely found outside of Asia and when it was served, the dish usually took on a typically Japanese form: thin slices that were lightly blow-torched or small cubes cooked teppanyaki style.


   Even when Kobe beef arrived in India – through the back door, naturally – it was Japanese restaurants that served it and the presentation and preparation were always authentically Japanese. Because it cost so much, most of us regarded Kobe was a rare treat on par with truffles or caviar.


   A mythology also developed around the cows of Kobe. We were told that these were descended from cattle that had been reserved for the emperor. The cows were fed a diet rich in beer and had their bellies massaged by beautiful geishas who moved the fat around so that the meat was perfectly marbled in every part of the cow.


   Then, around a decade or so ago, Kobe beef suddenly became a global phenomenon. Often, it was not described as Kobe but as Wagyu. Nor was the preparation particularly Japanese. American chefs began substituting Kobe for Angus or US prime in Western cuisine. Now, Wagyu was just the most expensive kind of beef available to all chefs for all cuisines.


   When we asked about the difference between Wagyu and Kobe, we were offered the parallel of champagne and sparkling wine. You can make sparkling wine anywhere in the world, using exactly the same ingredients and method as champagne. But by law, only wine made in the champagne region of France can take the name champagne.


   So it was with Kobe and Wagyu. We were told that Wagyu was the breed of cow used for Kobe beef. When the cow came from Kobe, the beef could take the name of the city. But if the cow was bred in Australia or America – anywhere outside of Kobe, in fact – then the beef could only be called Wagyu and not Kobe.


   The significance of Olmstead’s piece is that he challenges the idea that there is such a thing as a Wagyu breed. Most cows slaughtered for Kobe beef, he says, come from a breed called Tajima. Moreover, American Wagyu does not come from any one breed of cow. The beef comes from many different breeds including Angus and Holstein. The American Wagyu Association claims that these breeds were crossed with bulls imported into America from such Japanese breeds as Tottori and Kumamoto. Even if this is true, all it means is that American Wagyu comes from American cows, whose ancestors procreated with Japanese bulls at some stage in the past. Much of today’s Wagyu has very little Japanese blood and certainly, nothing in common with real Kobe beef.


"The next time you see a steak described as Wagyu, ask where the cow was bred. And if the price is too high, give the beef a miss. The chances are that you are paying for the designer label on the beef and not for the steak."

   I found Olmstead’s piece fascinating because I genuinely believed that there was such a thing as a Wagyu breed. But I am not sure I buy his romanticisation of Kobe beef either.


   The legend of Kobe beef suggests that even if the geishas have long departed, these cows are majestic specimens that roam the wild, stopping only to guzzle an Asahi or a Sapporro. In fact, the reality is quite different. The Japanese chef, Matsuhira Morimoto, once told me that he thought Kobe beef was a myth. In all his visits to the city, he said, he had never seen a single cow. Yes, it was true that Kobe beef could only come from cows slaughtered in Kobe. But this only meant that farmers from all over Japan took their cows to Kobe to be slaughtered so that they could sell the beef as ‘genuine Kobe’.


   The two-star Michelin chef, Raymond Blanc, is similarly sceptical. On a visit to Japan many years ago, long before Wagyu had become a global craze, Blanc asked to see a farm where Kobe cows were bred.


   Blanc was horrified to discover that Kobe cows were not allowed to roam the wild but were raised in pens like American cows. They were dirty and were herded into an abbatoir where they could see their companions being slaughtered. Most chefs know that stress and fear create a blood rush to the liver, kidneys and muscles of the cow, resulting in blood clots in the beef. So, breeders make a big deal out of claiming that their cows were reared and slaughtered in a stress-free environment. The Japanese, Blanc found, couldn’t care less.


   Further, Blanc discovered that because Japan is almost entirely vertical, there are few flat spaces for cattle to graze. So, the cows in Kobe are kept in confined areas, get little exercise and, therefore, become very fat. This explains the high fat content of the beef.


   Of course, it can’t be as simple as that. Most of us who have eaten real Kobe beef will attest to the richness of the taste and the uniqueness of the flavour. Even if there is no single Wagyu breed, the Japanese do seem to rely on breeds with extraordinarily flavourful meat.


   So, where does that leave us? Well, frankly, it leaves me more confused than ever. I still don’t know what the term Wagyu means and I am no longer sure that the Kobe seal is a guarantee of quality.


   A word of advice: the next time you see a steak described as Wagyu, ask where the cow was bred. And if the price is too high, give the beef a miss. The chances are that you are paying for the designer label on the beef and not for the steak.




  • somnath karunakaran 22 Jul 2012

    Vir, Your knowledge on each and every aspect of food is what makes you an exceptional Food expert. I haven't yet eaten the Wagyu or Kobe beef , but I remember eating corned beef in cans when we were small kids, it was out of the world for the taste, sad it isn't available these days.

Posted On: 21 Jul 2012 07:35 PM
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