A Guide to Wagyu: Premium Japanese Beef
Japanese beef, or “wagyu”, is one of the most famous types of beef in the world, particularly the Kobe beef brand from Japan’s Hyogo prefecture. A premium food product in and outside of Japan, wagyu beef commands a high price and promises a gourmet dining experience. But what is Japanese beef exactly and what makes it so popular? Read on to find out.
Wagyu Beef in Japan - What You Need to Know
Wagyu comes from four breeds of domestic cattle: Japanese Black, Japanese Brown, Japanese Shorthorn, and Japanese Polled cattle. These breeds come from native Japanese cows that were crossed with Western cattle in the early 20th century and then selectively bred over several generations to maximize their organic unsaturated fat. This gives wagyu beef its world-famous marbling, which is high in healthy omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids that have a sweet rather than greasy taste and some serious umami flavor. In addition to these genetic factors, wagyu cattle are raised with special attention to their environment and feed, resulting in premium beef.
Tender, marbled Japanese wagyu beef is recognized world-round for its extremely high quality, which must meet stringent industry standards for marble content, smell, color and brightness, texture and firmness of the meat, and quality of the fat. The beef is graded on two scales, one for the amount of meat yielded (from A-class to C-class), and one for the quality of marbled fat (from 1 to 5). The very best wagyu beef is grade A-4 or A-5.
Types of Wagyu in Japan
Wagyu comes from four breeds of domestic cattle: Japanese Black, which accounts for 90% of all wagyu beef;
Japanese Brown, also known as Japanese Red;
Japanese Shorthorn, which makes up less than 1% of wagyu beef;
And the extremely rare Japanese Polled, which only has a hundred or so head of cattle remaining to its species.
Kobe beef from Hyogo prefecture is the most famous brand of Japanese wagyu beef in the world, as it’s the first wagyu brand that was promoted overseas thanks to Kobe’s status as one of Japan’s biggest port cities. Wagyu from Kobe come from a subspecies of Japanese Black cattle called “Tajima beef”. Within Japan, it’s one of the top three wagyu brands.
Along with Kobe beef, Ohmi beef is another of the top three most famous brands of wagyu beef in Japan. Ohmi beef comes from Shiga prefecture east of Kyoto and is actually an older strain of Japanese Black cattle that has been cultivated even longer than Kobe beef. Ohmi beef is known for the fine texture of its marbling, which gives the meat a smoothly sweet flavor.
The third of the top three wagyu beef brands is Matsusaka beef from Mie prefecture. Matsusaka beef also comes from Tajima cows, which are raised in the verdant natural climate of Fukano Valley, about 30 minutes from Matsusaka city. Because of the area’s comparatively remote location, Matsusaka beef is not so famous outside of Japan but it’s becoming increasingly well known. That’s because Matsusaka beef is famous for its incredible quality and highly pampered cows, which are said to be fed beer and receive massages.
Along with these top three wagyu brands, Hida beef from Gifu prefecture in Central Japan is another wagyu brand that comes from premium Tajima beef. Hida beef has thinner muscle fibers and a fine marble coating that appears not only on steaks but also on the flank, shoulder, and round cuts, which results in incredibly tender and juicy meat from every part of a Hida cattle.
Other types of Wagyu
Other popular wagyu beef brands that come from non-Tajima strains of Japanese Black cattle include Miyazaki beef, raised in Miyazaki prefecture, which is the second largest Japanese Black wagyu producer in the country; Yonezawa beef, which comes from young heifers raised in Yamagata prefecture; Hitachi beef, which are hand-raised cattle in Ibaraki prefecture; and Kazusa beef, which is raised on iodine-rich water in Chiba prefecture.
Iwate beef comes from Japanese Shorthorn cattle raised in Iwate prefecture and is one of the unique wagyu brands that aren’t from Japanese Black cattle. It’s characterized by its relatively leaner beef that’s higher in red meat and lower in fat than other wagyu brands, but still incredibly tender and flavorful. If you find wagyu beef too fatty and marbled for your taste, then you may enjoy the healthy natural flavor of Iwate beef.
Similarly, Akaushi beef from Kumamoto prefecture is another wagyu brand with leaner meat that comes from Japanese Red cattle. The hearty portions of tender red meat from Akaushi beef is perfect for making roast beef.
How and Where to Eat Wagyu Beef in Japan
There are a number of ways to enjoy wagyu beef in Japan, and a number of specialty wagyu restaurants.
Steakhouses are one of the best places to enjoy excellent wagyu in Japan, from teppanyaki restaurants where the beef is grilled on an open cooktop directly in front of diners, to Western-style steakhouses serving Japanese beef.
For those who want to experience cooking wagyu beef themselves, yakiniku barbecue houses are an excellent place to try your hand at grilling your own beef over a traditional charcoal brazier.
Tender wagyu beef can also be enjoyed in hot pot dishes like sukiyaki and shabu shabu. In sukiyaki, the richly marbled beef is simmered in soy sauce and then dipped in raw beaten egg for an incredible creamy flavor.
In shabu shabu, thinly sliced beef is swished lightly in broth and dipped in ponzu (citrus and soy) dressing or goma (sesame) sauce.
For sushi lovers, wagyu beef sushi is a new way to enjoy both sushi and Japanese beef. To make wagyu beef sushi, nigiri rice balls are topped with thin slices of raw wagyu beef, topped with ingredients like freshly ground wasabi, ikura salmon roe, and foie gras. The wagyu beef can also be broiled with a torch aburi-style for an extra rich and smoky flavor.
Another way to enjoy wagyu beef is in the Japanese-style western cuisine called “yoshoku”, with dishes like hambagu steak and spaghetti with meat sauce.
Wagyu in Other Countries
While Kobe beef is the most famous brand of wagyu beef in the world, the Kobe beef that at many people eat outside of Japan is not true Kobe beef but a hybrid. Japanese wagyu cattle is typically breeded together with other types of cattle, such as Angus cows, for a less marbled beef that still has the characteristic sweetness of wagyu beef fat.
Try Japanese Wagyu to Taste Some of the Best Beef in the World
The next time you’re in Japan, you won’t want to pass on the opportunity for a true wagyu beef experience. Check out Gurunavi’s listings for the best places to enjoy wagyu across Japan.