Wednesday, March 18, 2009

What's Up With Wagyu?

I never understood the hype over Wagyu beef. Yes, I have salivated over the insane marbling of these special steaks from Kobe, Japan and have enjoyed first-hand as the combination of grilled beef meat and fat easily melted in my mouth. But then, really, there’s more to top-quality steak than just marbling, right? Although I’m far from being a knowledgeable butcher, I know that the best steakhouses also wet or dry-age their steaks to enhance tenderness and flavor.

When it comes to steak, I normally go for the more western-style preparation, which is mildly seasoned and grilled ‘til perfectly medium. Just to give you an idea of what “floats my boat”- I habitually fantasize about the NY Strip at Fleming’s, the Porterhouse at Peter Luger’s and the Chateaubriand at Pinot inside The Venetian Las Vegas. The best steaks- in my world at least- are thick with bright pink centers and charred on the outside by charcoal or wood. So, when I check the menu at Japanese restaurants and see the zeros on the prices of thinly-sliced Wagyu yakiniku or cubed teppanyaki, I can’t help but raise an eyebrow and ask, “Is it really worth it?”

I was able to find some answers when an exciting and new writing gig brought me and Matt to Century Tsukiji for lunch. After being seated at our smoking area table (which reminded me of those claustrophobic smoking areas in airports, but without the insidious cloud of cigarette smoke), I quickly ordered their 10-pc. Sushi set and flipped through their other pages for the rest of our lunch spread.

First to arrive, naturally, was the platter of Assorted Sushi. Matt- who is normally not a big fan of wasabi but has learned to love raw fish- gobbled this up in an instant. The seafood was very fresh and obviously of the best quality. We sipped Miso Soup with this, which could have been a bit warmer.

Matt’s Beef Fried Rice came next and was quickly followed by the Assorted Tempura. I feasted on the huge pieces of deep-fried and battered Ebi (prawn) while Matt had the Kisu (fish fillet) and vegetables. The fried rice was a bit bland for my taste, preferring mine to be heavy on soy sauce and butter, reminiscent of our childhood meals at Takayama. For some reason I never outgrew that.

Finally, a sizzling plate was brought out topped by a serving of Wagyu Sirloin Steak cooked teppanyaki style- cut into inch-sized cubes and cooked over a teppan table (like a griddle) with some butter, soy sauce and pepper, accompanied by a side of vegetables prepared the same way. I popped a cube in my mouth and was momentarily stunned by how tender the beef was. Having been exposed to the more readily-available local Wagyu and Snakeriver Wagyu, I almost forgot how soft and buttery authentic Japanese Wagyu really is. It was so delicate that I would have liked it more if there were less garlic flakes or none at all.

While Matt and I had some of their homemade ice cream, I asked him which part of the meal he enjoyed the most. While he admits that he would need two more servings of the assorted sushi to completely satisfy him, he said that it was the best part of our lunch. I agreed with him completely.

How, for the love of God, could we not have fallen under the spell of Wagyu’s unsurpassable tenderness? Have I programmed my mind to only enjoy steak with wine, making my Japanese steak lunch a notch below perfection? (While we're at it, maybe someone can tell me which wine is good with teppanyaki steak.) Is Matt’s Teutonic heritage making him incapable of enjoying the subtler flavors of the East? Am I over-analyzing this?

I must be, because I honestly think that it really is just a matter of taste. I enjoy the smoky, masculine aroma of huge slabs of beef being grilled over a fire, its outer layer crispy from when the flame flared up as a result of dripping liquid fat. I have this vision of cowboys gathered around a campfire, their tomahawk steaks glistening against the setting dessert sun as a pot of beans boils away beside them. That, to me at least, is what a steak should be.

But, then again, what about a 20-ounce Wagyu porterhouse, grilled to perfection over an outdoor grill? Now that’s a different story.

Century Tsukiji
Century Park Hotel
P. Ocampo St.
Malate, Manila
Tel. no. (632) 5285907


Noel said...

Hi, Chinkee.

I favor thick, rare, rib-eyes myself. I've run the gamut of steaks for years (US prime, choice, Wagyu, Kobe, etc.), and, at the end of the day, there's nothing like a big, juicy slab of charred outside and rare inside US Prime-Grade rib-eye for me.

One of my close friends would grill us up some man-sized hunks of Wagyu and Kobe rib-eyes (this is the same fellow who would host all-you-can-eat foie gras and Peking duck parties until our group's cholesterol levels got too out of hand), but, after digestion issues, we settled on US Prime-Grade from then onward (sometimes dry-aged, sometimes not - it doesn't make that much of a difference to me).

The thing about real deal Kobe is that it's best consumed in small amounts. Last time I had it was in a Japanese restaurant in Bangkok - I had a whole order to myself - and, after eating half of it, I gave the rest to my friend. Really good, but much too fatty - nakaka-sawa na masyado.

My brother's wife is a Japanese lady from Tokyo. She told me that the way we'd serve Wagyu, i.e., amounts - isn't done in Japan: one of our steaks (one steak each) would be good for a family of 4-5 people because they are so rich and fatty. She said what they look for is just a little bit of the taste - not "babuyan" like us.

That said, my conclusion is: it really depends what one is in the mood for. Problem is, I almost always feel like "babuyan".


Chinkee said...

Hi Noel! Thanks for the info on Wagyu. That explains why the Japanese serve it the way they do, and not just because its so darn expensive.

The thing with me is, like you, diving into a huge slab of meat is part of the whole steak experience. So when I am served these flimsy slices of beef, I'm like, "Um. Ok." Kulang sa KARNE! Hahaha!

Noel said...

Exactly how I see it! Heh heh.

Miguel said...

Wagyu tends to be too fatty...I also enjoy it in smaller portions. But I also enjoy a good huge slab of Rib eye...

Chinkee said...

Hey Mig! I also think Angus rib-eyes are the best... Just the right amount of marbling and the texture is perfect. The best when the taba is tostado! Yum!

Socky said...

US Prime Rib-Eye, hands down. Mainly because, like Noel, I like my steak thick, juicy, slightly charred outside and medium inside. Wagyu is best thinly sliced and cooked teppanyaki style. Or try briefly marinating thin wagyu slices in minced garlic, sesame oil, soy sauce, grated apple and sesame seeds, then throw everything in a wok to fry very briefly. Enjoy Japanese for a fraction of the cost you'll pay for the same stuff in a restaurant.

Chinkee said...

Hi Socky! Yeah apparently Wagyu is really meant to be eaten in thin slices. Baduy. Hehe.

Thanks for the recipe... Looks really tasty. I can imagine consuming large amounts of rice with it.:-)

miss martel said...

wagyu is an extra fat breed of cattle. :) yummmmmmmmmm... however, kakahilo if you eat it as a steak.. what they do here sa inagiku is they have this thing called cowboy sushi which has a sukiyaki thin slice of wagyu on top of sushi rice. perfection.

ps. i miss white rice thanks to you! hahaha!

miss martel said...

pps. i cant help but notice that the steaks you fantasize about are all in restaurants you ate in with me. i think you just miss me. hahahahahhahahaha.

Chinkee said...

Hey Tons! I think I like that Cowboy Sushi... You must make me try it when I visit you.:-)
Thing is though, I have seen wagyu sold as NY cut or ribeye, so I was like, Dang! That's a big slab of fat beef! Hehe. Pero nakakahilo nga...

Yeah nga noh! Those are all our "date" places. Hahaha! The best talaga the steaks in your side of the world. And when we eat together, its always... magical. Hahahaha!

Sadao said...

Being from Japan, I've never been brave enough to cough up my sweat and blood money to taste the subtlety.

Chinkee said...

Hi Sadao! Surely not something to eat everyday, but still a must-try. Personally, I prefer going to Japanese restaurants solely for the sushi and having my steaks elsewhere.