Wagyu is in its prime, but is it the best cut?

It seems there's no abating our appetite for Wagyu beef, with its distinctive marbled fat content and flavour. We ask chefs and exporters whether it's really a cut above the rest.

UK food truck The Roadery created the Burg Khalifa at Eat the World DXB 2017, consisting of five Wagyu patties and an edible 24-carat gold-leaf brioche bun. Courtesy The Roadery.
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There are more than 100 places to get steak in the UAE and more steakhouses are opening all the time, which is testament to the fact that beef is one of the world’s most popular dishes.

If there’s one thing the UAE likes to eat it’s beef, and the country’s connoisseurs have long enjoyed a love affair with one particular type – Wagyu.

This intensely marbled beef has a higher fat content than regular cuts and, as with most foods, fat means flavour. This in turn means it commands a higher price, but high prices are not something that puts UAE diners off, and this has not gone unnoticed by global beef producers.

Edgar Francis, manager of Karim Overseas, a Sydney-based meat exporter, says that exports of Wagyu beef to the UAE jumped by 25 per cent last year. And while the UAE is a country that seemingly embraces the more expensive end of the menu, are we at risk of judging cuts of beef by price alone?

Scott Price, chef patron of Folly, a recently-opened restaurant in Madinat Jumeirah, has been cooking here for more than a decade and has witnessed the rise in popularity of Wagyu. “It’s a relatively new type of meat and one that not everybody has tried, but it has a richer and more luxurious taste as opposed to normal beef and gives a chef – especially in a steak restaurant – more options for the guest, in terms of quality, range and price point.”

It’s not his preferred choice though. “I prefer a rib-eye or sirloin, as they have a good fat content while cooking and keep the meat moist,” says Price.

Likewise, Joanna Portella. The grill specialist at Rare restaurant agrees that we’re often too eager to judge a menu on price.

“There are several cuts I believe we do not pay enough attention to and we don’t explore the endless possibilities to prepare a nice meal out of,” she says. “A few of my favourite cuts are flank steak, short ribs chuck, brisket and several parts from the leg.” The perception that the UAE demands high-end when it comes to any food is a view held outside of the country. At last month’s Dubai food truck festival Eat the World DXB 2017, The Roadery – a truck from London – created a “Burg Khalifa” burger, comprising five Wagyu beef patties, truffled cheese and seared foie gras, and served inside an edible 24-carat gold-leaf brioche bun.

While this may have been something of a gimmick, the idea of Wagyu being used in the common burger is ironically not, as some believe, the waste of a fine cut.

“It’s actually well suited for burgers as it has a naturally high fat content that is very consistent,” notes Price. “Generally, when you make burgers you have to add about 20 per cent fat during the grinding process so the meat is moist while cooking and doesn’t dry out.

“The natural Wagyu fat has a very prominent flavour, but is not suited to everyone’s taste, hence the constant argument for grain-fed versus Wagyu flavour.”

But while the word Wagyu just means Japanese beef, increasingly the Wagyu we eat doesn’t come from Japan. The biggest exporters are actually Australia, the United States, Chile and the United Kingdom and none have the purebred cattle that genuine Wagyu comes from. For many countries, however, it’s a booming business.

According to Graham Truscott, chief executive of the Australian Wagyu Association, there’s a 25-30 per cent annual growth in Australian Wagyu production since 2012, and he expects that rate to continue until 2020 as demand outweighs supply.

Australia only started producing Wagyu in the early 1990s and it still only accounts for less than 1 per cent of the beef herd, but notably, 90 per cent of Wagyu meat produced in Australia is exported for prices significantly higher than Australians are willing to pay.

Price says it’s always good to ask the chef or waiter if you’re not sure, but points out “the quality and marbling grade of a good Wagyu is very apparent when you see it, and in restaurants that sell different grades of Wagyu that’s usually reflected in the price”.

Juan Pablo Rey Nores, head chef at steakhouse Gaucho, says if you want Wagyu then try to go to the source.

“Japan has a long tradition of Wagyu beef, but other countries have found a business with this meat and it’s not the same. Other places may have the cattle, but the terrain is not the same, the weather is not the same, the human being taking care of the animal is not the same. In Japan they take care and don’t think about mass production like in the US, Canada or Australia.”

When asked if people should insist only on Japanese when ordering Wagyu, he smiles and says: “You know, home-made mayonnaise tastes different from the one in the supermarket. If something is created in one region, you should try to get it from that region to make sure it’s the correct product.”

The good news though, for those who insist on Wagyu, is that more from Japan is on the way to this country.

Executive director for the Japan External Trade Organisation, Masaru Nishiura, recently announced that while the country’s product is about four-times the price of other beef – and twice the price of Australian Wagyu – they have purebred Wagyu cattle that can’t be found anywhere else. He expects exports to the UAE to double by 2019.

So it doesn’t look like the UAE’s love of highly-marbled beef is going to end anytime soon – but we’d still be foolish to abandon the more traditional varieties.