Wouldn’t you like to have some Wag You Beef? That’s how I used to say it, until I started learning Nihongo and Kanji. Whoops. Turns out the proper pronunciation was Wa-Gyoo, from the characters 和牛 meaning Japan (Wa in archaic Chinese), and Gyuu, cow. Turns out that wasn’t the only thing I needed clearing up on. Just what is Wagyu beef, and how does it relate to Kobe beef, which got known here before the term Wagyu?
Wagyu refers to meat from certain Japanese breeds of cattle, which have a natural tendency to grow very finely marbled resulting in that signature tenderness and flavor. The fat even has a lower melting point than typical beef fat. And as Jamie Oliver says, fat is flavah. Don’t be afraid of the fat, be afraid for your wallet. That incredible marbling is of course rare and carries a hefty price tag wherever you go.
Technically any meat from the Japanese breeds Kuroge Washu, Akage Washu, Mukaku Washu and Nihon Tankaku Washu can be called Wagyu, whether it was produced in Japan or not. What’s truly exclusive to Japan is region-branded Wagyu like Kobe, Omi, Matsusaka, Yonezawa, Sanda and Mishima beef, which can only come from those areas. The best three wagyuu, called the Sandai Wagyu or Three Great Beefs, are Kobe, Omi and Matsusaka. Kobe beef is the best known worldwide, but in Japan Matsusaka is considered a cut higher. Omi beef, considered the oldest beef brand in Japan, is somewhere between the two.
The standards are very high: for example the Matsusaka brand can only be applied to meat from cows that have never been bred, are registered as purebred, and meet a minimum marbling ratio. Wagyu quality is rated C1 to A5, with A5 being the creme de la creme of meatiness, marbling, and tenderness.
Videos abound of Japanese beef cows being massaged or even fed beer. This has led some to believe that it’s these practices responsible for the marbling. They’re not; the marbling is a hereditary trait, which is why even Australia and the USA can produce Wagyu beef. Instead, massage is a way for the farmers to relieve stress on cows that don’t get to move around much (not much pastureland in Japan), while beer stimulates appetite. The same effect has been observed on humans! It’s not some Japanese sorcery thing at all, but rather a demonstration of how much effort they put in raising healthy, meaty cows.
Experiencing wagyu beef in Japan can range from a stick of yakiniku from the Dotonbori streetside, 300 yen, all the way to incredible steaks or shabu shabu sets at generations-old kaiseki restaurants and ryokan that can hit over 20,000 yen per person. Some of these expensive restaurants however offer lunch sets at around 2,500 yen.