It’s safe to assume that most New Yorkers have heard of Kobe beef, and even if you haven’t had the good fortune of dropping a large sum of yen on a steak in Japan, chances are you’ve savored American beef raised in the “Kobe style.” But did you know that there’s another type of wagyu (literally, “Japanese cow”) that rivals the famous Kobe brand?
It’s Matsusaka Ushi, and local officials are making a concerted effort to export it to the States and raise its popularity around the world.
“Our beef is our city’s pride,” says Mitsushige Yamanaka, the enthusiastic young mayor of the City of Matsusaka. “You know Kobe beef. Kobe beef is very, very popular all over the world. But you don’t know Matsusaka beef. But in Japan, Matsusaka beef is very, very famous, more than Kobe beef.”
Matsusaka beef was in fact named the most popular brand of Japanese beef by a Beef Industry Market Survey.
Mayor Yamanaka and a handful of officials involved in the city’s cattle council and economic development visited New York to conduct a tasting at Shinbashi in Midtown. He beams with pride as he describes the beef from his city.
Matsusaka is a city of approximately 168,000 located in Mie Prefecture in central Japan. Mie is well known as the home of the most sacred Japanese Shinto shrine, the UNESCO World Heritage Site Kumano Kodo, and the birthplace of cultured pearls. Matsusaka boasts one of only a handful of breeds of wagyu. A special grade of Matsusaka beef comes only from cows born in Hyogo Prefecture, brought to Matsusaka as calves, and fattened for around one thousand days.
“For example, Miyazaki beef and Kobe beef – other wagyu – the breeding time is 400 or 500 days,” says Mayor Yamanaka. “But this is about twice as much, over 1,000 days. There is a high risk of the cattle suffering from illness or injury. But [the breeders] have very good emotion and love for the cattle. They have a love to make great beef taste and flavor.”
The cattle are raised in what the cattle council describes as “traditional artisanal methods,” including giving them massages and feeding them beer to stimulate their appetites. The result is beef that has a soft and marbled texture and a flavor that Mayor Yamanaka describes as “mature.”
“We raise only virgin female cattle between the human ages of 18 to 24 years old,” says Ikuya Matsubayashi, director of Matsusaka’s Industrial Economy Department, explaining why the amount of Matsusaka beef is limited.
Matsubayashi and say now is the time to export, as the US is relaxing its restrictions on importing beef from other countries. Still, it doesn’t seem that they’ll go the route of the Kobe beef breeders, who have had the benefit of being a large port city with international visitors who go there for the famous beef. There are farmers in the US and Canada raise cattle in the same style as breeders in Kobe, some even obtaining embryos from Japan and artificially inseminating their cows. Mayor Yamanaka has no immediate plans for that happening with Matsusaka beef; he simply wants to begin by exporting to the US and building from there.
“Maybe as New Yorkers you’re the first men and women to eat Matsusaka beef,” says Mayor Yamanaka before we were served at Shinbashi.
Chef Haruo Obu, the former head chef at Inagiku Restaurant at Waldorf Astoria who is known as the first chef to use wagyu in New York, prepared Special Grade Matsusaka beef in four different styles: Grilled sirloin steak; shabu shabu, thinly sliced beef boiled in water for only a few seconds and served with vegetables; tataki, lightly seared and marinated beef; and saikyo miso zuke, which looked like bacon but without the crispness.
Each dish had tremendous flavor, especially the sirloin, which contained more fat than an American meat-lover will normally see. Yet the fat wasn’t chewy; it instead lent itself perfectly to the savory essence of the meat. Matsusaka beef is smooth, tender, juicy, and easy to chew, has a delightful aroma, and pairs beautifully with sake or wine.
It’s no wonder Matsusaka beef is the most popular brand in Japan. The product and the city deserve just as much recognition in the States as Kobe beef does. If we’re lucky, we’ll all be enjoying Mastusaka beef at a restaurant in New York – Japanese or otherwise – for a full meal rather than simply a tasting. Keep in mind that it will be pricey, but it’s worth every penny on a special occasion.