Wagyu: The Prime Japanese Beef
Wagyu, the juicy, fatty, and tender Japanese beef, is one of the most expensive ingredients, not unlike black truffles and caviar. It is adored by Michelin-starred restaurants for its premium quality and intricate marbling. The rich and creamy taste is a treat for the taste buds.
What is Wagyu
“Wagyu” is an umbrella term for Japanese beef cattle, where “wa” means Japan and “gyu” means cattle. Wagyu were originally draft animals trained to pull heavy loads. They were selected for their special genetic qualities, the predisposition to create more fat cells in their muscle tissue to provide a source of energy. They have crazy Intramuscular Fat (IMF), also known as marbling. The white fat mingled with the red meat of the steak creates an unrivaled dining experience.
Another term similar to wagyu (Japanese beef) is kokusan-gyu (domestic beef). A calf born overseas and raised in Japan can be called kokusan-gyu if it meets the standard. However, there are only four breeds of cattle officially recognized as Wagyu in Japan - Kuroge, Aakage, Nihon Tankaku, and Mukaku.
Wagyu is not only tender and tasteful but also healthy. It’s found that Wagyu contains stearic acid which has a minimal impact in raising cholesterol levels and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) which can lower blood cholesterol. Moreover, the ratio of monounsaturated fat to saturated is higher in Wagyu than in other beef. Therefore, Wagyu is more beneficial and healthier for humans.
History of Wagyu
Wagyu is an ancient breed of cattle that originated in Japan and can be traced back 35,000 years. Before the Meiji Restoration in 1868, wagyu was used only for labor work because meat was not commonly consumed in Japan due to religion. It was not until 1872 when the Meiji emperor ate meat publicly for the first time that beef consumption increased. The new Japanese government tried to promote Western culinary concepts.
Crossbreeding with non-Japanese cattle was rare due to Japan being far from other countries and it being isolated from the world for such a long time. From 1868 to 1919, native Japanese breeds mixed with imported black breeds and became the four original Wagyu breeds. Later, the government no longer allowed genetic crossing with foreign breeds. In 1997, the Japanese government recognized the importance of animal husbandry and the uniqueness of its breed. The government declared Wagyu a national treasure and enacted a ban on the export of live Wagyu, which maintained that authentic Wagyu is exclusive to Japan.
The Grades of Wagyu
In 1988, the Japanese Meat Grading Association (JMGA) established standards for yield grades (A to C) and quality grades (1 to 5). Before a cow dies, a letter will be designated. An “A” represents the highest meat yield and a “C” represents the lowest.
Wagyu is classified into grades 1 to 5, with grade 1 being the worst quality and grade 5 being the highest quality. The grade depends on the fat percentage, color, glossiness, and firmness. The first criterion is obvious because the marbling is the factor that makes Wagyu beef special. The more fat, the better the wagyu. Next is the color of the meat. The lean meat with a medium tone is better than those with lighter and darker tones. The color of the fat is also an important factor because it suggests how tender the beef is. In this case, the lighter and brighter the fat is, the better the quality. Finally, beef is judged by its firmness, which should be firm but tender.
In conclusion, the best Wagyu will be graded A5, where A stands for the highest yield grade and 5 stands for the best quality. A5 Wagyu indicates that the beef is with ideal firmness and texture, color, and marbling. Be prepared to pay a pretty penny to eat some of an A5 cut!