Australian meat – never,” exclaims Mr Yukio Koyama, plonking a plate of finely sliced raw horseflesh on the table, “Here we have only the best quality ‘cherry blossom’ sashimi.”
While Australian exporters bemoan Japan’s agricultural closed shop, two companies have carved out a lucrative piece of the highly specialised market — for horsemeat.
But the mystery is, what happens to the thousands of tonnes of meat after it is landed in Japan? No restaurant will own up to serving it. It doesn’t appear on the list of ingredients in Japanese salami and other smallgoods.
Certainly, Mr Koyama would not consider using it at his restaurant, the Mutsugoro, in the basement of the Green Hotel in the business district of this pleasant city on the southern island of Kyushu. “It is frozen and does not come up to our standards,” he sniffs.
This is, by repute, the finest horsemeat restaurant in the country. And your average outback brumby is definitely not the stuff the titillate the palates of the gourmets who flock here – nothing but the finest Japanese-bred percheron (a type of draught horse) meat will do.
Everything on the menu is horse. Every part of a horse is on the menu, which adorns the wall, decorated with silver horseshoes.
Horse sashimi, known as basashi, is the classic dish – served with a dish of soy sauce, finely chopped raw garlic and grated ginger. But there is also salt-grilled horse, horse stew and, for the adventurous gourmet, such oddities as sliced horse tongue and liver, aorta, mane (actually the skin of the neck)and chopped and stir-fried genitalia.
But even if Chef Koyama turns his nose up at Australian horse, it is making an impression, at least at the wholesale level.
“It is popular with a good, regular clientele,” says Mr Shigetaka Matsuoka, the executive in charge of horsemeat at the trading company Mitsui. However, he declines to name any names.
Last year, Japan imported 27,886 tonnes of horsemeat, from countries including Argentina, China, Canada and the United States. The Australian slice was 4,754 tonnes. At around 250 yen (about $A3) a kilogram, this is an export industry worth $15 million a year.
Two Australian companies dominate the trade – Merrymist, based in Caboolture, Queensland, and Metro Meats in South Australia. Metro’s international sales manager, Mr Mike Pearce – who has just returned to Australia after a sale mission to Tokyo, where his company maintains an office- says it is a solid business.
Mr Pearce says he enjoys a piece of horse himself, as bashimi. “It is a sweetish taste, quite pleasant, though you would just have a little bit of it, you wouldn’t sit down and gorge yourself.”
Around 6,000 Australian horses are killed to make up the export orders -some, says Mr Pearce, are wild brumbies shot as pests, others are former stock horses.
The horses are slaughtered at an abattoir in Peterborough and exported to Japan chilled. According to Mr Matsuoka, the bulk of it is fore- and rear-quarters, for making smallgoods (presumably the ambiguous “various meats”identified on the packaging).
But there is about 5 per cent of prime rib-eye fillet, used for sashimi and for steaks. However, a ring-around of Tokyo’s leading horsemeat restaurants found no-one ready to admit serving it.
Mr Koyama said: “Perhaps you should try the French restaurants … we have high standards here in Kumamoto and only use Japanese meat.”
Section: News and Features
Word count: 661
Drawing: Rocco Fazzari