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What’s the beef about a $500 steak?

Chef Clark Zhang

Kobe beef is the world’s most expensive meat, but what makes this type of wagyu so exclusive and desirable?

Chef Clark Zhang is ambitious. He wants to present the very best at his Samurai Teppanyaki House in Hyde Park, which is why he fought for a year to obtain Kobe beef from Hogyo Prefecture in Japan, and become the first restaurant in Australia to offer the world’s most expensive cut of beef.

This has been a dogged quest for Zhang since he moved Samurai from The Parade, Norwood to larger premises with private dining spaces at Hyde Park. Why he is fixated on Kobe beef? especially when his restaurant already serves two cuts of elite wagyu beef, from Wayura Station (Australia’s first and largest pure wagyu herd in Millicent) and A5 Japanese wagyu (the first imported to Adelaide, since August 2018).

Both of these types of wagyu are renowned for their high fat marbeling score that results in a unique and rich flavor, but Zhang  says Kobe beef is a prestige marker that sits in its own universe. It’s $850 a kilogram or about $500 for a large steak – although the meat’s intense richness means it is usually served in 80 gram slices.

It remains an especially rare item, despite a propagation of elite restaurants about five years ago that falsely claimed to be selling Kobe beef in the United States and Europe – a scam exposed by Forbes magazine that put Kobe beef under much greater scrutiny from food authorities and consumers.

As a consequence, Zhang has made a great show in his restaurant of accreditation attached to the Kobe beef he has obtained. In Japan, every restaurant and retail shop selling Kobe beef displays a 10-digit identification number and a scannable QR code that corresponds to the particular animal from which the beef was cut. All Japanese beef is traceable and accompanied by certificates showing the animal’s lineage, birthdate, slaughter date and weight – to protect the pure bloodlines of cattle that have been maintained since Japan’s Edo period (1615 to 1867). Japanese Tajima-gyu are the only cattle that can legally be labelled Kobe beef, and only about 3900 head of cattle each year meet Kobe’s strict quality standards. It therefore remains difficult to find in Japan, with only a handful of top restaurants serving it – and only about 10 per cent is exported.

So why is this wagyu so desirable? Kobe beef fat contains high levels of unsaturated fatty acids, which melt at much lower temperatures than saturated fatty acids. Oleic acid melts at 18 degrees Celsius, far lower than human body temperature, and some of Kobe’s other fatty acids melt at even lower temperatures. As a result, fat seams contained within the meat dissolve into the flesh during cooking, making it rich and buttery, giving a sensation of tenderness as it melts in your mouth.

Zhang tried Kobe beef in 2017 and immediately enquired about supplies for his restaurant, but it took a year of persistent requests, along with obtaining membership of the Japan Teppanyaki Association and references from importer Osawa Enterprises, before a licence to import Kobe beef was granted. With such high global demand for Kobe, Japanese exporters are very selective about their customers.

A small shipment arrived in Adelaide in October, which Zhang presented to customers at gala dinners over two nights. Wagyu comprised four plates in a 10-course degustation menu, allowing diners to compare different wagyu producers and cuts.

The difference was in the marbling. Australian wagyu reaches a maximum fat marbling score of nine, while Kobe achieves a marbling score of 12. Kobe A5 scotch fillet carries a rich, beefy taste enhanced by a caramelised crust from the teppanyaki hotplate. By comparison, Kobe A5 tenderloin fillet offers a more delicate flavour, with fine seams of fat resulting in a texture so soft that it dissolves in the mouth. Zhang sprays the meat with brandy soon after it hits the teppanyaki hotplate, then torches it to apply a thin crust that enhances the meat’s sweet notes. Its palate weight seems almost ethereal for meat of such rich intensity.

Any suggestion that one type of wagyu cut is superior over another misses the point; each has separate qualities and shows subtle flavour and texture differences worth contemplating. The delight is in the detail. “Kobe is not only about a taste difference, but a special feeling – a most satisfying sensation in the stomach,” says Zhang.

Zhang is waiting for another shipment to arrive in January before introducing Kobe beef as a regular part of his teppanyaki degustation. It’s a hefty investment he believes is entirely worthwhile.

David Sly

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