The words “wagyu” and “Kobe” incite many reactions in people. For some, it is the epitome of fine food. Expensive protein that is hand massaged, fed beer and lives a life of luxury so that it has the highest fat marble content around, all to make it better to melt in your mouth. For yet others, it is a waste of time and money – moment on the lips, forever on the credit card slips?
Diners are cautious because the high prices of this cattle have spawned many imitators and expensive but not legit knock-offs. Luckily, this does not happen as much in Japan. The Japanese dining crowd is extremely discerning and demanding, and there are a series of pieces of evidence that can be used to show a piece of wagyu’s legitimacy, including chips and barcodes.
Wagyu is a name applied to a wide range of about 130+ breeds of cattle, most of them named after the area they come from, such as Kobe wagyu. Wagyu just translates to “beef from Japan” but it is a title that is only bestowed upon cows that are 100% born from wagyu cattle and raised in Japan. That is why some beef in the States is “wagyu style” or “Kobe style” – it may be from a Japanese breed and raised in the same style, but it was raised outside of Japan. Very little of this beef is actual proper wagyu shipped from Japan. There are a number of other breeds that are not as well marketed in the west that some people say are better than Kobe. One of them comes from a little island not far from where we live, very close to Taiwan. It is called Ishigaki, and it looks idyllic.
Here, the cattle eat very mineral rich grass (Ishigaki is very famous for salt, as well) and live lives of beachy luxury until their number comes up and they are served to mainland Japanese tourists eager to try some fine beef. I cannot state enough how huge food tourism is in Japan. Every area has a famous sweet, famous noodle style, even a very specific food item. So it is big business…a cash cow, if you will.
Mike had been craving a big old steak for a week or two now. We recently bought a grill to do chicken sticks and veggies on but he was eager to give beef a try. Normally I would think it ridiculous to home grill a piece of meat of wagyu caliber at home, but here it is actually feasible because the prices are okay instead of insane. However, the biggest problem was finding it. Most super markets sell very fine beef in very thin slices suitable for beef bowls, sukiyaki or at home yakiniku grilling, but very little is available in big American sized chunks. And if you do find it, it is most likely going to be Australian.
So I took to Google to find a butcher willing to help us out, and found a video posted on YouTube of a local butcher in a very touristy market in downtown Naha, Okinawa.
This gave me pause, since we had eaten at this market and it was, unfortunately, a real tourist trap. But, the meat looked like what we wanted and I had no other leads, so we gave it a try.
Maruichi turned out to be intimidating. They had huge chunks of meat that looked like they might be able to be cut to order, but we still lack the language skills to ask for that. Dejected, we wandered to the nearby Makishi Market to see what they had. Makishi is kind of a place people go to take photos at. They eat upstairs at the terrible restaurants, take a photo with a pickled pigs head and go back to their hotel.
Things seemed over priced and it just was not the same as other Asian markets I have been to. When we arrived most of the fish stalls were cleaning up for the day, but in the corner we found a meat stall. There, pre wrapped hunks of well marbled meat labeled with prices and Ishigaki tags. Cha-CHING!
I am not sure if the meat was frozen or not, and we did not ask on this trip. Chances of it being frozen are about 50/50…Japanese transport companies are amazing, and able to ship both frozen and chilled items to arrive the same day, so it could also have just been chilled since Ishigaki is a short plane ride away from mainland Okinawa. It came from a supplier called Yaeyama / 八重山 and they seem to be a big supplier of beef from Ishigaki.
We picked out some steaks and the guy shot the shit with us the best we could in our Japanese. He said he was surprised we were taking the steak home – most people eat it upstairs (at the restaurants who cook items from the market) he said.
We paid about $30 for 200g, and took our carefully cold packed meat home with us after stopping at a grocery store for some vegetables. On the label you can see the code used to identify the company and perhaps even the very cow the cut came from. They take this stuff seriously.
Mike did all the prep and grilling, which I appreciate. Perhaps he will chime in on his technique in the comments.
He coated the steak in salt using a new method he read about online. Luckily the butcher had given us some omiyage, or a gift, of Ishigaki salt. It was very fine and powdery.
After the grilling came the hard part – the resting. Finally, I sliced into the steak with a butter knife and sat and savoured in silence. I could barely speak. It was tender, buttery, meaty… wonderful. I found the fat rind around the edge a bit overwhelming, but I did eat most of it in a gluttonous way.
The veins of fat throughout the meat had dissolved into the protein, and it was light and buttery, not heavy and greasy. I have found Kobe to be overwhelmingly fatty sometimes, but not so with Ishigaki. Maybe it is Okinawa pride speaking, but I do think it is the superior meat. I have had it at restaurants and at home now, and it is wonderful.
Looks kind of grainy and maybe even tough in this shot, huh? It wasn’t. The fat rind is closest to the camera in this photo.
Sauteed some mushrooms and grilled some zucchini, okra and eggplant on the grill after.
Here is a video cut I made of us slicing through the meat. Meat porn!
We grilled some of the remaining fat up on the grill afterwards to char it a bit more. Fat popsicle, anyone?