Wagyu (和牛 Wagyū, “Japanese cow”) beef is what is being purveyed these days in eateries and restaurants big and small, from Michelin-starred restaurants to even hamburger joints and local food outlets. I am glad to have attended the “Japanese Wagyu & Exquisite Ingredients Seminar” through my business and lifestyle blogging friend Grace Tan. The seminar, geared mainly for chefs and a handful of others from the F&B industry, took participants into the inner world of Japanese wagyu, Kurobuta pork and other “exquisite delicacies”. An interactive tasting session completed the seminar.
I attended the seminar to learn why everyone has been talking about wagyu beef a few years after I returned in late 1999 from my Tokyo posting. From industry sources wagyu beef’s history in the Singapore F&B scene is about ten years old or so. Singapore has earned its rank as the culinary destination in Asia, and I am glad that our chefs are given this opportunity to acquire deeper knowledge and help to provide the “right knowledge to customers in Singapore”.
Japan is undoubtedly the wagyu mecca. Historically, the prevailing religious practice had curtailed the consumption of beef. In fact the prohibition of beef consumption was only lifted after the Meiji Restoration. The trend of increased beef consumption really came after World War II.
It is not surprising that the Japanese zeal in R&D and quality has contributed to the raising of premium wagyu beef cattle with special qualities such as marbling, a higher percentage of oleaginous unsaturated fat and tenderness.
The three top brands (known as Sandai Wagyu, “the three wagyu beefs”) are Matsusaka Beef, Kobe beef and Ōmi beef. I can still recall my expatriate days in Osaka during the early part of the mid-1980s when Kobe beef was being retailed at US$300 per kilogram. How can I forget when a kilo of top grade air-flown chilled Australian beef in Singapore then was SG$33 per kilogram! This is not a typo error!
In terms of cooking, wagyu beef can be prepared as steak, sukiyaki, shabu shabu, teppanyaki and even sashimi.
The following photo shows the preparation of sukiyaki in a restaurant in Ginza, Tokyo. The restaurant specialises in serving shabu shabu and sukiyaki using wagyu beef. I remember my endearing retired friend saying over lunch in December last year, that he could afford wagyu beef, but not the Kobe! (Note: We first met in Osaka, and people in the Kansai area support their Kobe beef.)
New Source Of Wagyu From Kagoshima
Kagoshima (the capital city and the prefecture carry the same name) has a “distinct and rich food culture”. Its subtropical climate and rich volcanic soils have long contributed to its brand recognition for quality agriculture and aquaculture products.
The iconic postcard view of the city is one that features the active volcano Sakurajima (its most recent eruption was in February 2016) across the bay. And for movie buffs, “The Last Samurai” movie is loosely based on a famous Kagoshima samurai and politician.
Wagyu beef lovers in Singapore can now benefit from direct imports of Kagoshima wagyu, kurobuta pork, saba fish (item is on trial) and other premium Japanese ingredients from Yamato Shoji (Singapore) Pte. Ltd. (www.wagyu-yamato.com.sg).
3 Important Things I Learnt About Kagoshima Wagyu
#1. Process Control Technologies Used To Ensure Freshness, Quality & Food Safety
The wagyu cattle are now ready for the factory in the first step of a long 9-step supply chain. Prior to that, each animal has spent 1-2 weeks in a special breeding farm, fed with hay until it is 3-months-old and live on a fattening farm for a further 9 to 10 months in order to reach the ideal weight of between 650 kg to 750 kg.
From stress-free slaughtering (using carbon dioxide gas instead of electric shock), preparing cuts of meat in sanitized clean rooms to its final delivery to you in vacuum-packaging in its wagyu supply chain ensure confidence. And food safety!
#2. Using ID For Tracking Kagoshima Wagyu
With food safety as the paramount concern, you understand what I mean when adulterated and fake food items proliferate in the market place. More so for wagyu beef which commands premier pricing and increasing demand! The 10-digit ID is the critical information that is included in ex-factory labels and supermarket price tags, the later in Japan.
The image below shows the actual product labelling that Yamato Shoji sell to its retailers – with the ID clearly stated on the label.
Tip: Be smart and ask your retailer about the label. And if you are a chef or restaurateur, ask your potential supplier for the ID.
And if you need to know more, go to this website www.id.nlbc.go.jp which provides a cattle individual identification register which is based on the Japanese cattle traceability law. Key in the 10-digit ID to get key information such as the date of birth, date of slaughter and which farm it was bred as my next image shows. You can trace the genealogy of each animal up to three generations!
#3. Insider Information On Wagyu Storage & Handling
Whilst these are the information shared with the chefs at the seminar, I found them extremely useful since I use wagyu beef for cooking my steak, shabu shabu and sukiyaki. Pan fried steak is easy to cook and shabu shabu & sukiyaki don’t involve complicated culinary skills. The main reason is value for money. I get the genuine Japanese wagyu and can save up to 60% when eating at home as compared to specialty restaurants. No double GST too.
Knowing the insider information, I hope to help fellow amateur home chefs with my tips:
* #1. Wagyu must be stored in a refrigerator capable of delivering a narrow 0 to 1 degree temperature. Below 0 degree, large amount of drip will come out when cutting it in room temperature. More than 2 degrees, the wagyu simply deteriorates faster.
My tip #1:
Buy your wagyu just hours before you plan to cook and eat at home. Our home refrigerators’ “ideal” setting is 1.6 degree, and different foods require higher/lower settings. Most likely, the average temperatures hover between 3-4 degree, often higher. Opening and closing the doors affect the temperature. So don’t buy your expensive wagyu and store it in your home refrigerator.
*#2. Wagyu Best-Before-Date Is Set Between 30-45 Days
Wagyu best-before-date is set based on the sanitation status of factories in Japan. In general, it is 45 days maximum. Upon arrival in Singapore it is already 7-10 days since production. Cuts such as rump, top round and neck deteriorate faster. And 10 days the best-before-date, they drip and discolour.
My Tip #2:
Buy your wagyu only from your reliable and trusted retail outlet/butchers and ensure that the best-before-dates are not imminent. And apply My Tip: #1
*#3. Drip & Discolouration
Drip causes deterioration. More drip means more rapid deterioration. The fat absorbs the drip and leads to bad smell. The wagyu suffers from discolouration and turns grey or even green, especially for cuts such as rump, top round and neck. There are advice (for the chefs and restaurateurs) on how to stack wagyu in a pile (due to storage limitation), cutting the wagyu in smaller portions upon removal from the vacuum packs and things to do when the wagyu starts to smell!
My Tip #3:
Now you know what to look for, little drip and no discolouration. As a home consumer, you and I don’t buy wagyu in large quantities and keep them in the refrigerator. My Tip #2 and My Tip #3 help you to see and choose your wagyu before making your purchase. And apply My Tip #1, my own cardinal rule.
Other Special Ingredients From Kagoshima
Kagoshima prefecture is home to the most traditional of Japanese beverages, the shochu (焼酎) – a spirit made from its famous sweet potato (Satsuma imo). Its “Black Label Products” include the kuro-ushi Wagyu beef, kurobuta (black Berkshire pork), kuro-Satsuma jidori chicken, unagi and black vinegar.
Fortunately for us in Singapore, Kagoshima’s renowned kurobuta is available locally.
An ingenious process developed by the aquaculture experts (illustrated by the image below) is in using the local supply of volcanic ash to treat Kagoshima’s abundant supply of fish. The ash is used to remove moisture and smell from the fish, prevent oxidation and thus help to preserve the taste of its fish products.
Yamato Shoji is considering to bring in a miso-marinated saba (mackerel), ready in cooked form. I like its light miso-enhanced taste during the interactive tasting session.
The seminar was anchored by Executive Chef Masaki Iida. A native from Kagoshima, and now working out of Aichi Prefecture (where Toyota is), he gained experience in overseeing food sourcing and menu development for a top 5 F&B group in Japan. As an entrepreneur now, he is the go-to person for food sourcing through his intimate knowledge of Japanese suppliers.
The image above shows Chef Iida sharing his knowledge in Brewerkz’s former brewery room. I learnt that the good people at e2i, the Employment and Employability Institute, organises masterclasses to deepen the skills of professionals. Bravo for upping the knowledge of our chefs. As I have said earlier, Singapore has earned its rank as the culinary destination in Asia. Let us continue to sustain its preeminent F&B status.
The seminar was organised by Yamato Shoji (Singapore) Pte. Ltd. and supported by e2i. I enjoyed browsing its informative website for its contents. They reminded me of my enjoyable postings to Japan, first to Osaka looking after Western Japan in the early mid-1980s and later to Tokyo in the later half of the 1990s, overseeing the whole of Japan for our national carrier.