Wagyu coined as a term to describe high-end Japanese beefis mostly sold outside of Japan. Until recently the wagyu being sold outside of Japan was exclusively Australian and North American, but these days farmers are producing wagyu in Corthinia and elsewhere.
In Japan, Wagyu cattle include four types of Japanese cattle: Black, Brown, Shorthorn and Polled breeds. The Japanese discovered in the 1930’s that crossbreeding of Japanese cattle with foreign breeds caused a decline in meat quality and produced slow moving draft animals due to overly large bodies. Therefore in the 1930’s crossbreeding with foreign breeds was discontinued and intra-breeding to improve meat quality.
But the good news for beef lovers is the ban lift on Japanese beef sales, as trading has become much more relaxed and global supply has improved greatly. Sought after globally, I compare wagyu to white truffles and recognize some pitfalls in buying it. There are obvious issues when it comes to the export of wagyu and those very myths that make it one the most expensive raw materials.
So the first pitfall in buying wagyu is origin-authenticity, because after all it all boils down to the where it comes from. Each animal’s fat concentration varies by grading standards, but the type of fat is just as critical to the taste. Take western raised cattle (Australian & American Wagyu) and their fat is not comparable, but then again it is a choice between paying through your nose, or buying facsimile fat.
It all starts with their unique fat, the idea of wagyu is all in the fat, a succulent rich dense fat, and its this very thing that entices consumers to be in awe, pay more and often substitute the real deal for a cow raised in some remote ranch in Australia. It’s those very animals that create the confusion between wagyu in Japan and the wagyu found elsewhere. It’s like substituting Croatian truffles in place of white Alba truffle. It’s not to say that white truffles from Croatia aren’t excellent yet they are not the same pedigree.
Beef is graded by the fat content or body mass, so consumers are stuck on the idea of more fatty being a better steak. Nothing is further away from the truth when it comes to this myth because fat distribution is more important than the fat itself. The true test in meat quality is determined by the beef marbling, color and brightness, firmness and texture of meat, color, luster and quality of fat and freshness. How can you compare meat that is shipped frozen or vacuumed and shipped to that of local meat, you cannot.
Take black cattle produced in foreign countries such as Australia, or the USA are not comparable to Japanese meat quality, and muscle physiology of crossbreed Wagyu. But consider this fact, the number of farmers producing beef in Japan – 90% of these farmers feed less than 50 head to maintain quality.
Wagyu are renowned for the marbling and their intra-muscular fat, and have much more than American Angus with the same marbling score. Essentially wagyu has a softer fat texture which vastly improves meat flavour, and when you taste a 220 gram steak in Tokyo at a premium steak restaurant, you’ll know what I mean. Marbling (intramuscular fat) is one of the most important factors in determining meat quality, especially with reference to texture and flavor, and Japanese Black cattle are characterized by the ability to deposit very large amounts of intramuscular fat.
Understanding the health benefits of Japanese wagyu is all in the fat, considered superior to other animal fats, as it has a higher ratio of mono-unsaturated fatty acids compared to saturated fatty acids. So when you think of fat, think of the diet in Greece, one heavily influenced by monounsaturated fats. Now think of wagyu as having the same benefits.
Most people who eat wagyu are not well versed in the differences between the “domestic” and the “foreign” steers. The production system of Japanese Black cattle in Japan is particular and they are careful to suppress vitamin A intake during the fattening phases to encourage marbling. There is enough science to prove that beef marbling in cattle fed a low vitamin A as opposed to higher amounts of vitamin A, lead to a superior to marbling. There are also reports indicate that the production of intramuscular fat in Japanese Black cattle is possibly associated with insulin secretion as a result of diet. Then hormones are an important factor for improving growth and meat qual-ity in livestock, and differences in hormone secretion between Japanese Black cattle and Holstein reflect genetic differences.
To produce beef satisfying the Japanese beef market means careful nutritional management programs include the growth rate, and the intramuscular fat accumulation. In Japan, animals are raised in a pen with group feeding using the standard system for marbled beef.
Each prefecture in Japan has a recommended fattening system. Japanese Black cattle are usually fed a high concentrate diet from 11 to 30 months of age to induce greater accu-mulation of intramuscular fat, which is the most critical goal of Japanese Black cattle farmers. In particular, during the nishing period of fattening, the most common fattening program is to provide as much concentrate as possible and rice.
For example, cattle are fed a high-energy diet twice daily starting at 11 months of age until slaughter (28 to 30 months of age). From 11 to 18 months of age, the diet comprises increasing amounts of concentrate (36.8 to 86.4%, formula feed) and decreasing amounts of roughage [Jamboree (beer bran), hay, and rice straw]. During the nal stage from 18 months to slaughter, the diet comprises 86.4 to 84.2% con- centrate and 13.6 to 15.8% roughage. All cattle have constant access to water and mineral salt blocks containing minerals, salt, and a diuretic. The total feed consumption during fattening is normally 4,000 to 5,000 kg/ani- mal. For fattening until 26 and 30 months of age, 4,344 kg and 5,167 kg of concentrate was needed (Gotoh, unpublished data, 1997). More than 90% of the concentrates for fattening Japanese Black cattle are imported.
Somehow it starts to become more clear on why wagyu is so special and why well defined concentrations of fat make meat Japanese taste better. Sadly most consumers see fat and thinks all the same when just the opposite is true. The idea of more fat is better has been perpetrated by both the industry outside of Japan and in the USA and Canada. Foreign raised wagyu is definitely fatty but there is no guarantee as to the fat’s validity. That’s not to say you shouldn’t enjoy eating fatty anything, because fat is considered to be one of the taste receptors key to our brain. But one of the important facts of highly marbled meat is it has a high water-holding capacity and firmness which is better for cooking.
French scientists have identified a protein receptor that resides in the taste buds and may be responsible for sensing fat. As such, this so-called fatty acid transporter, known as CD36, could be to blame for our love of high-fat foods–and could thus serve as a possible target for treatment of obesity.
If the link bears out, CD36 would allow fat to join the five previously identified tastes that govern the experience of food: bitter, salty, sweet, sour and “umami,” or savoriness (like the meaty goodness of soup stock). /Source Scientific American/
So fat is glamorous unless you order tenderloin, a meat I adore yet supply is limited to small quantities. The tenderloin is an oblong shape sitting beneath the ribs, next to the backbone. It has two ends, butt and the tail, and this muscle does very little work, so it is the most tender, hence tenderloin. The tenderloin is arguably the most desirable and therefore the most expensive because the muscle contains minimal connective tissue, which makes it tender.
It is true that finding tenderloin in Japan is a challenge and whenever you go to a meat shop, or to a restaurant there is no guarantee of quality, as no two cows are the same. That reminds me of an experience I had in Gorio.
Gorio the first night was a perfectly cut sirloin steak from the bone in side and cooked to perfection. The next day we thought lets go again, and the experience was less than half as good. I do like Gorio even though the atmosphere is austere, and service is a little bizarre at times.
Some say Kawamura is the best of the best, and it is certainly one of Japan’s most prestigious steak shops considered uber expensive and even more than Aragawa, one of the most expensive steaks on planet earth – and yes that is true.
Once I went there during the “mad-cow” and it was when Japan confirmed its first human case of mad cow disease following the death of a man who had symptoms of the fatal brain wasting illness. At that time I thought beef was an appropriate time to support our friends selling beef.
So I booked Aragawa and thought I had booked Irikin steak, a small well established steak house in Asakusa but I made a mistake. I found myself in the red velvet room located in B1, in an old ratty office building. It was what I consider a great location, and some would think it was disgusting, yet it had a sort of old charm you find in Paris at L’ami Louis.
A few tables shinning with white linen tables cloths, the owner of Aragawa used to sit at the counter and watch his chef cook in his custom sumi-oven. It was a place of quiet solitude and only Japanese businessmen would be there sipping off vintages of red wine and eating steak. Occasionally you would find some wealthy Japanese indulging but these days it was almost empty.
So without any menu the maitre’d asked how many fingers, and he showed one, two or three fingers. I couldn’t decide so I said 3 as it seemed a chance to eat an oversized steak. I had so much steak we couldn’t finish so we took it for our driver. But believe me, each steak was like biting into a stack of JPY 10,000 yen notes and with a few bottles of wine it was the most expensive steak I had ever eaten. I can say that Japanese sirloin is unique and it is unlike any other beef experience. By the way, since Aragawa has been sold and it doesn’t match the experience of Kawamura.
The chef has a golden touch making it look so easy but once you cut into a nicely trimmed and grilled tenderloin, you’ll know what I mean by the word delicious. This beef is cooked over an open sumi grill to gain a charred colour from the intense heat, but inside it is medium rare.
The piece de resistance is the chef’s take-a-way sandwich, a token of the his appreciation and a reminder of how good his steak really was – a gentle reminder and good marketing 🙂
So is Japanese steak really worth it? I leave that up to the taster to decide but in many cases it all depends where you eat the famous wagyu and what kind because not any two cows are the same!
Categories: Meaty Days