Meat is much more complex than it seems and especially when buying a steak for a home chef. For most consumers and especially in Japan, quality meat supply is becoming more difficult. Even for those high-end meat restaurants the challenge is the growing demand and limited supply of quality beef. I am told by a reliable source that most of the meat goes to Korean BBQ restaurants given they buy all cuts and are not running after the prime cuts only.
It is true you can find very fatty beef and many foreigners believe that fat is what makes the meat great. The grading of beef in Japan based on fat content, and sadly the degree of marbling in Japan still dominates meat evaluation.
But the grading system is only part of it and the challenge is no two cows are the same. Even-though a cut is a cut and each cut varies from animal to animal you need to see with your eyes the quality. The vibrancy of the fat and the consistency of the marbling. So if you are searching fat and believe that fat is what counts then use the grading system.
Still in the minds of traditional farmers and there are six grade categories:
Special Selection (Tokusen)
First Grade (Jo)
Second Grade (Chu)
Third Grade (Nami)
Under-regular Grades (Togai)
This process involves “ribbing” and is the process of cutting one or both sides of the carcass between the 12th and 13th rib to expose the ribeye (longissimus) muscle, marbling and fat thickness. The beef must be cut and examined before it can be graded. The grading is based on 10 grading characteristics of fat content.
2. Practically devoid
8. Slightly abundant
9. Moderately abundant
Yesterday I visited three butchers in search of some meat for a friend visiting from out-of-town. He wanted to have his last night in Tokyo to be a wagyu steak dinner. I obliged and we went out for the meat search together. After inspecting meats at three different locations, I decided to head back to my butcher who has aged wagyu, something I am not convinced about.
The rotting of Japanese gyu doesn’t really work the same way it does in the west. The reason is the fat doesn’t change much, at least not in a positive way. The meat in a typical steer in the US will dehydrate, rot at the same time and the meat concentrates in umami flavour. But in Japan the fat dominates the beef, and so the aging is more about rotting fat. The end result is unpredictable and not always perfect on the palate with some flavours that are not savory. I believe it just doesn’t work.
So in the end I passed over the yamagata aged beef and headed for the a simple filet, a cut that isn’t aged at all. The filet is still the top grade cut anywhere in the world, however in most places it lacks marbling, and flavour. But in Japan it is the top of the cuts and marbling isn’t an issue at all. The issue is finding the right marbling, not too heavy and a combination of consistent fine lines that create a complex yet beautiful pattern.
So when I saw the meat trimmed I said to myself, we will eat this beef raw. It would be a pity to cook such a cut, and I was dreaming of the cold soft and milky texture. Once the time came, I took out the beef from the fridge and used a fugu sashimi knife to cut it. Cutting it into tranches of 8mm the beef was butter soft, yet firm and the texture superb. The beef was served with classical shoyu, salt and mustard. You choose what you think works best and the rest is based on simple hedonistic values.