Worth the Search

After visiting Japan, Kobe Bryant’s parents named their son after a steak. They weren’t the only ones ga-ga over lusciously marbled, exorbitantly expensive Kobe beef, which became a major fad after Japan began exporting it to the United States in 1976. America raises its own Wagyu cattle, but if it’s not killed in Kobe, it’s not really Kobe beef. And it’s a lot cheaper.

Kobe beef really is better than American Kobe-style beef. It’s more marbled than the American, as the cows are typically fattened on corn for around 36 months in Japan, versus being fed hops and barley for 18 to 24 months in the U.S. Whether it’s better enough to pay three times as much as for an American-raised steak probably depends on how much disposable income you have.

We decided to take a look at other imported ingredients (and one from Hawaii) with a reputation for quality to see if they’re really any better than the more commonly available versions.

Canned tuna —Europe versus United States

Price of European: Around $11 for a 6-ounce can from igourmet.com
Price of U.S.: Around $1.49 for solid albacore at Whole Foods

Turns out there’s a lot not to like about American canned tuna. It’s packed with hydrolyzed vegetable protein (a flavor enhancer), the tuna is cooked before canning to make it easier to bone (which depletes some of the flavor), and a can usually contains flakes of meat rather than whole pieces of fillet. Also, albacore tuna is typically used, and it’s more likely to contain mercury. Only a few new tuna companies (such as American Tuna) buck these traditions.

In Spain, Bonito del Norte is the preferred tuna that’s canned (Ortiz is one of the most popular brands), with whole pieces of fillet packed in tasty olive oil, versus American broth or water.

The product is similar in Italy, where well-known brands like Collipo use yellowfin tuna. The price is typically double, but its flavor is luscious and rich.

Verdict: Europe

Macadamia nuts —Hawaii versus California

Price of Hawaiian: $13.50 per pound from Nuts Online
Price of Californian: $3.50 per pound (in-shell) or $9 per pound (shelled) from the Gold Crown Macadamia Association

You probably instantly think of Hawaii when it comes to macadamia nuts, but they’re actually native to Australia. Now they’re also grown in California, Central America, and South Africa, but if you’ re looking for the best, stick with nuts from either Hawaii or Australia, where the majority are the “smooth-shelled” variety (Macadamia integrifolia). Compared with the “rough-shelled” variety (Macadamia tetraphylla), which are better suited to growing in less tropical areas like California, the smooth shelled have a higher oil content (meaning they’re creamier), and the quality is less variable. (The seed coat of the rough-shelled variety makes it tougher to get a uniform texture and color from roasting.)

Verdict: Hawaii

Dried Apricots —Turkey versus California

Price of Turkish: $3.99 per pound (sulfured) from J&D Fine Foods
Price of Californian: $6.99 per pound (sulfured) from J&D Fine Foods

About a fifth of the world’s dried apricots are produced in Turkey, with California, Spain, Pakistan, and Iran supplying most of the rest. Turkish apricots are cheaper, but they don’t have the intensely sweet-tart flavor of California apricots. This is a result of their not only being a different variety (the most common variety in Turkey is Malatya; in California it’s Patterson), but also being “slip-pitted”—the side is slit and the pit is removed, as opposed to being halved and dried, as apricots are in California. This process results in a dried apricot with more moisture but less concentrated flavor, so unless texture outweighs taste for you, you might want to stick with California’ s crops.

Both California and Turkish apricots can be purchased sulfured (treated with sulfur dioxide to keep them from drying out and turning brown, which is the most popular form for both countries), sun-dried, or unsulfured. Obviously, the sun-dried and un-sulfured varieties will be drier and chewier, but some prefer them because of the lack of chemicals.

Verdict: California

Crystallized ginger: Australia versus Fiji, China, Thailand …

Price of Australian: $2 for a 3.5-ounce bag from the Ginger People
Price of Chinese: $5.95 for an 8-ounce box from Sur La Table

Ginger is cultivated in many places around the world—Australia, Fiji, China, Thailand, Jamaica, Brazil, India, and Nigeria, mainly, but not in the United States, where we lack the tropical climate for it to thrive. But there’s something about Australia’s Sunshine Coast (the combination of beautiful climate and perfectly suited soil) that produces a superior product.

Australian ginger farmers harvest a portion of their crop young—at five months. Other countries typically harvest at about nine months. This gives Australian farmers less yield because the younger ginger is smaller. But younger ginger is less stringy than older ginger. Its tenderness makes for better crystallized ginger.

Verdict: Australia

Bay Leaves —Turkey versus California

Price of Turkish: $2.99 per ounce from the Spice House
Price of Californian: $3.79 per ounce from the Spice House

Two different trees, the Turkish bay laurel (Laurus nobilis) and the California bay laurel (Umbellularia californica), produce leaves with unique taste and aroma. The Turkish are subtle and complex, with a sweet, woody flavor. The Californian are much stronger, and must be used with caution or they’ll impart a bitter, medicinal flavor to your dish.

Verdict: Turkey

Pistachios —Iran versus California

Price of Iranian: Unknown
Price of Californian: $6.99 per pound from Nuts Online

Pistachios and politics are seemingly far-flung topics. But when it comes to Iran and the United States, the two have overlapped more than once. After the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979, President Carter imposed a ban on Iranian pistachios, that country’s biggest export. When the embargo ended, the U.S. market was flooded with Iran’s below-cost pistachios until the U.S. pistachio industry successfully lobbied for high duties on the foreign nuts. That was 1987, and since then, it’s been impossible to get Iranian pistachios in the U.S. unless they’ve been brought in by somebody who bought some in Europe, where they’re imported in large quantities.

Most of the pistachios available in the United States come from California. According to those who have tried them, the flavor of Iranian pistachios is better, although the nuts are smaller and harder to open.

Verdict: California, as we have no choice