Here's the Beef
No matter where you are in Japan, there is one thing worth splurging on at least once before your tour is up – the taste of Wagyu beef.
Literally one of the finest beefs in the world, a sirloin cut of Kobe- or Matsuzaka-type Wagyu beef may run you as much as 25,000 yen ($200) or more per pound. It has been numbered among the most expensive foods in the world, along with truffles (the edible fungus), caviar and foie gras.
For most Japanese, Wagyu beef is a delicacy reserved for special occasions, such as anniversaries, graduations or promotions.
What makes it so special?
Wagyu literally means Japanese cow, which may not sound so special in and of itself, but it refers to a native species genetically predisposed with meat that is intensely marbled with unsaturated fat – the so-called healthy fat.
This beautiful pattern of intramuscular fat and red meat is called “shimofuri” (marbling). It results in a tender texture that practically melts in your mouth with a rich luxurious taste and sweet mellow aroma.
“For Japanese, quality meat contains a lot of fat,” says Tamio Nakamura, managing director of Japan Meat Information Service Center. (Far from unique, this appreciation for certain fatty meats can be seen in indigenous cultures around the world and in today’s “paleo diet” craze that seeks to emulate them.)
According to Nakamura, one of the best ways to try this quality beef is as sukiyaki, thin slices cooked with various vegetables in a table-top cast-iron pot. H also recommends “shabu-shabu” in which paper-thin slices of beef are swished around a few seconds in a boiling broth then dipped into a sauce and eaten. “Yakiniku,” or Korean-style barbecue, is also a favorite.
“It is best to prepare and eat it in small or thin portions that; way you can work to enjoy the taste of wagyu the most,” he say. “I do not recommend thick and large steaks because it may be too rich and fatty.”
Various regions in Japan produce their own version of Wagyu beef that is typically named for its town, city or area of origin. Kobe beef from the capital of Hyogo Prefecture is perhaps best known to those outside of Japan; but there are many others such as Shinshu-gyu from Nagano Prefecture; Ikedo-gyu from Hokkaido; and Matsuzaka-ushi from Mie Prefecture.
Okinawa, Japan’s seventh largest prefectural Wagyu producer, has its own brands such as Ishigaki-gyu, Motobu-gyu and Okinawa Wagyu. Of these three brands of Japanese black cow breeds, Ishigaki-gyu is considered the best and was proudly served at a reception for the G-8 Kyusyu-Okinawa Summit in 2000.
It is said that since Ishigaki-gyu is bred and fattened in Okinawa’s subtropical climate, free from the stress caused by cold weather, the meat is extremely sweet and tender. In fact, Okinawan livestock farming techniques are on par with Kobe’s in at least one respect.
“Usually, livestock farmers fatten Wagyu calves purchased from breeders in other regions. For instance, farmers in Miyazaki purchase calves from breeders on Okinawa and raise them as Miyazaki-gyu,” Nakamura says. But that’s not so in Okinawa where cows are bred and fattened in the same place. “This is really very rare. Kobe beef farmers are one of the very few others that do this.”
Wagyu is also produced in Australia, United States, Canada and Scotland. However, these countries do not have the same strict certification for pure-bred wagyu as Japan, causing purist like Nakamura to insist that the real deal can only be found here.
“Simply speaking, we only call cattle with (two 100 percent) wagyu parents – and that have been raised in Japan – wagyu,” he says. (However, Japan Meat Information notes at least one exception; the Japanese Polled breed of wagyu are decedents from local cattle cross bred with Scottish cattle in 1920.)
Ironically, it may very well have been vegetarian beliefs that came to Japan with the rise of Buddhism and its isolation during the 17th to the early 19th centuries that helped preserve wagyu and its purity. Once primarily used as working farm animals, the prevalence of tractors and a new national taste for meat after World War II lead to the rise of the domestic beef market.
Now that wagyu goes for as much as $200 a pound, the cost of this rare and exquisite beef alone is likely to preserve it for generations to come.