The beef, which is renowned for its high prices as much as its trademark marbling of fat, and resulting melt-in-the-mouth texture, was a major draw for the Japanese pavilion at Dubai’s Gulfood exhibition in February. But while the demand is there, getting hold of genuine Japanese wagyu in the Middle East is currently a challenge.
Waking up to wagyu
According to Teruyuki Tsuyuki, deputy general manager of Summit Trading, a UAE-based importer of Japanese products, Japanese producers of wagyu are only just waking up to the potential of the Halal market for their product.
“At the moment, they just started to expand their ability to export wagyu beef to Islamic markets. From our side, we’re still waiting. Currently we are importing a certain quantity, but only based on special orders from restaurants,” said Tsuyuki.
“The problem is in Japan, because there are only a few places that can do Halal slaughter. So if producers have good wagyu beef available in the local [Japanese] market, they cannot export it so much. Now they have just started to expand, to increase the number of Halal slaughterhouses. So it will come,” he added.
Tsuyuki said the timescale for new Halal slaughterhouses in Japan becoming operational is currently unclear, in part because of the need for authorities from the Middle East to certify the facilities before they can start producing Halal wagyu.
Aussies dominate the market
While Summit’s market for wagyu is currently limited to restaurants, Tsuyuki said it would like to enter the retail market. At the moment supermarkets only sell the Australian version of wagyu – and Tsuyuki claims most of the ‘wagyu’ beef currently sold in the Middle East is Australian.
But he is confident discerning consumers will be able to appreciate the difference: “Once a chef tastes the Japanese wagyu, they immediately recognise which is real and which is not real – I don’t want to say fake, because the Australian version is part of wagyu. The chef immediately understands which one they’d prefer to serve to their guests.”
Tsuyuki said that when he has given wagyu samples to clients, they have immediately ordered more. He also noted his surprise at the number of orders and requests from outside the better-developed UAE market, with queries coming from Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Oman as well.
Beyond the famous beef, Summit also imports most of Japan’s other food export staples, including fresh produce, seafood, and grocery products such as rice, soy sauce and snacks. Tsuyuki said UAE consumers perceive Japanese food as being very healthy, but there is also room to expand its appeal through linking it to Japanese culture such as manga and anime.
He said that while Summit was keen to expand, it wanted to maintain the reputation for quality in Japanese food: “Recently in Dubai, some restaurants and chefs have been asking us to get more reasonable items. We have the high end – so now we are going into the mid-range to expand our business. But we don’t want to get into fake items.”