Japan is a country where craftsmanship has a rich history and tradition. At some point, artisans were even labeled as a separate class, just beneath the famed Samurais and right there with farmers which fed the economy. Farming and artisanship are deeply embedded into Japanese culture.
Japanese beef, or Wagyu is what happens when farmers become artisans: Beef becomes art.
Thanks to globalization, everyone has heard about Wagyu beef and there is a LOT of confusion out there. In this blog post, which was written with the support of The Japan Food Product Overseas Promotion Center (JFOODO) we intend to educate the reader about Japanese Wagyu, what makes it special and how to buy it.
This article is extremely comprehensive, separated into sections for handy access:
LET'S TALK ABOUT WAGYU
The word "Wagyu" (wah-gyuu) originated in Japan and translates to "Japanese beef." You may have noticed "Wagyu" produced in the U.S. or Australia, but true Japanese Wagyu is produced in Japan; technically Wagyu should only be used to refer to cattle raised in Japan. There are 4 breeds which are traditionally considered Wagyu:
- Wagyu: Kuroge Washu (Japanese Black)
- Mukaku Washu (Japanese Polled)
- Akage Washu (Japanese Brown)
- Nihon Tankaku Washu (Japanese Shorthorn).
These breeds present world-class genetics, and raised under the right circumstances, produce beef that's got spectacular intramuscular fat patterns referred to as "marbling," resulting in decadent umami flavor.
That said, not all Wagyu is the same. Not even all Japanese Wagyu is the same, which is why the Japanese Meat Grading Association (JMGA) came up with a system to rate and qualify beef.
You can take the "Wagyu" out of Japan. But is it still Wagyu?
In 1997, the Japanese government declared Wagyu beef a national treasure and banned the export of Japanese cattle to other countries. However, some embryos and live cattle had already been exported from Japan to the US.
Some enterprising Americans then turned around and exported some of those embryos and cattle to Australia. Now, a few decades later, Australia raises almost as much Wagyu beef as Japan, and the Wagyu industry in America is large and growing.
But is it really Wagyu?
Marketing is a beautiful thing—and so is genetics. The "Wagyu" outside of Japan is certainly delicious and a craft of its own. But it's not the same. The Wagyu produced outside of Japan is from cows that are cross-bred, which yields a different animal (literally and figuratively!). Further, that animal is grown in a different climate and under different conditions when raised elsewhere; in Japan, each farmer uses a highly custom feed. And the Wagyu in Japan vs. in the USA or Australia is processed differently.
Each one of these factors is as important as the genetics when it comes to the end product. That is why American or Australian Wagyu yield a different flavor (more like regular beef) than the distinctive flavor, texture and aromas of true Japanese Wagyu.
The art of Japanese Wagyu starts with the breed, but it is so much more than that. Each breeder has unique practices. The Japanese grading and rating system is among the strictest in the world.
As a point of reference, say, an average cow grades BMS 4-6, which, in terms of marbling (aka intramuscular fat) is not too far off from a very good American USDA Prime Steak. Grade A5 Japanese Wagyu, on the other hand, grades BMS 9-12.
This visual guide was designed by our team to show the different beef grading models internationally:
The Japanese Meat Grading Association (JMGA) requires that the ancestry of each animal graded be confirmed and traced—and this is where technology comes in.
Each cow is assigned an ID number when born, and this ID is constantly updated with production and distribution information until the date it's sold to an end customer. The system is so detailed that you can trace back to which individual cow gave birth to a calf, when and where the calf was born and who the breeder was.
THE A5 GRADE
In America, the Wagyu industry is completely unregulated. That is why many vendors use their own grading systems—and why quality can be inconsistent.
If you browse the web or walk into your local butcher, you'll see terms such as "Black Grade" or "Gold Grade"...another big producer calls their higher grade "Ultra." It turns out many of these meat labeling terms do not reliably indicate quality and other key information, more marketing language than fully vetted by a governing body (nationally, as is the case with Japanese Wagyu). American Wagyu is graded on good faith—meaning that the same farm that raised the animal determines the grade. There is no national governing body for American Wagyu, so it's harder to ascertain what you're actually buying...and justify the premium that meat may command!
In Australia, the rating system for Australian Wagyu is more developed than in America as it is in fact government-regulated. However, it lacks the full transparency and traceability of the more rigorous Japanese system.
For a steer to be graded "A5" it has to meet the highest criteria, scored on two factors: a YIELD grade (A-C) and a QUALITY grade (1-5).
When looking at quality, there are four factors to consider and each one is scored from 1 to 5:
(2) Meat color and brightness
(3) Firmness and texture of meat
(4) Color, luster and quality of fat
The lowest score from the four items of the yield grade is assigned. In other words, even if grade 5 was given to marbling, color and brightness, and firmness and texture, and only the fat quality was assessed at grade 4, the quality grade of this beef is docked to a lower grade 4. Japanese Wagyu quality grading is super strict.
So for a true Japanese Wagyu animal to qualify as A5, it takes a lot. It means it excels in every single factor, truly a one bite wonder.
You know what they say about happy cows...
Japanese breeders have long believed that the happiness of the animal throughout its life forms a fundamental component of the meat’s quality (at Meat N' Bone we share this belief). Different farmers have their own unique, proprietary practices—and this is likely where the hearsay of cows getting massages was born.
Not everyone in the industry shares this belief. There are many Japanese Wagyu production programs that are highly technological. The debate about the mix of art and technology in the process as the industry innovates will only continue.
As to whether some Japanese Wagyu farmers massage their cows. It is possible...there are many special Japanese Wagyu practices out there. For example, Sanuki olive Wagyu steers are raised on a special feed of dehydrated and roasted mulch of olives which results on higher levels of oleic acid, yellowed fat, and nutty taste. Other producers feed their cows the mash that's left over sake production—yum!
Some cows are raised into a colder environment (e.g. Hokkaido snow Wagyu), another example of how the change in an animal's lifestyle changes the taste of the Wagyu.
Breeders and farmers will do what they do when it comes to the art and science of producing the perfect bite. We consumers can support them by experiencing Wagyu across different cuts and regions—and buying their products.
JAPANESE PREFECTURES AND THE WAGYU OLYMPICS
Kobe beef may be one of the most misunderstood and misused words in the culinary world. Often restaurants or butcher shops, even major companies, will mislabel dishes and products and add on the term "Kobe" to beef that isn't true Japanese Wagyu from the region of Kobe.
When buying Japanese Wagyu, take a moment to familiarize yourself with some of this Wagyu 101 here. Don't be afraid to ask questions and watch out for misleading branding on menus and websites—simply, so that you're getting what you think you're getting.
All Kobe beef is Wagyu beef but not all Wagyu beef is Kobe beef. Kobe is one of the 47 Japanese prefectures (regions) that produce Japanese Wagyu. Each one of these regions has a long and rich tradition that dates back thousands of years. Almost all of them produce beef and do their best to differentiate themselves.
Japanese artisans and farmers are competitive. Since the year 1966, a "Wagyu Olympics" of sorts has been held in which producers from each prefecture in Japan compete in two main categories: breed improvement and meat quality. There are also subcategories, mainly categorized by the age and gender of cattle.
Kobe (Hyogo) has won one. Miyazaki has been the winner of four titles—and was the first one to win three times in a row.
The next "Wagyu Olympics" will be held October 6-10, 2022 in Kagoshima, Japan. Note that prefectures do not enter the contest; usually a producer brand that's deemed the best from each region enters as the sole representative of the prefecture.
JAPANESE STEAKS ARE DIFFERENT
Even the way steaks are processed is different.
If you browse our section for A5 Japanese Wagyu, you'll see many steaks that appear similar to steaks you've had before. However one steak you won't find is the New York least what we traditionally call a New York strip. In its place, you will see Japanese Wagyu strip loin.
The reason they are cut thinner is because the size of the muscles is large, the yield of the carcass is big (grade A), and less is more with Japanese Wagyu. Because the marbling and flavor is so rich, a little goes a long way. Ultimately, Japanese Wagyu gives a whole lot of satisfaction despite its premium price point.
So while a "steakhouse grade" ribeye or New York strip will usually be cut at-least 1"or 2" thick, most Japanese beef is cut to 1/2" thick.
The way steaks are cooked in Japan is different. Japanese Waygu is meant to be shared. For instance, the teppanyaki style features a technique where beef is cut into thin strips and then seared in a pan or skillet. This method of cooking is preferred to grilling as it allows for a quick and even sear. The idea is to warm the meat just enough to melt the interior fat for simple perfection.
GETTING STARTED WITH JAPANESE WAGYU A5
Japanese Wagyu is now widely available all over the US, but since the market is not regulated and there is more awareness and education to be done among both home cooks and professional chefs, it's easy to be deceived.
Buy Japanese Wagyu from reputable butchers such as Meat N' Bone or reputable restaurants such as The Wagyu Bar. We recommend staying away from online resellers who offer Japanese Wagyu at prices that are hard to believe. Beef is a commodity, meaning you get what you pay for. If something is too cheap to be true, it probably is. This is more and more important as Japanese Wagyu gains in name recognition and popularity—plenty of "fake" alternatives in the market popping up to profit.
Many restaurants and purveyors will flaunt a Japanese Wagyu certificate. Don't trust this right away. Note that there is one certificate per steer, so it comes in a folder with paperwork, export papers and cattle ID for that individual animal, not a certificate indicating the trustworthiness of the overall business you're buying from. So unless you are purchasing a whole cow, you are not matching authenticity using the original certificate. Even with a certificate, it'd be difficult for you to ascertain whether the steak is the real deal as that takes some training.
When you buy from a reputable source such as Meat N' Bone, you know you are getting what you paid for. We work directly with Miyazaki, Kagoshima, Sanuki olive Wagyu and many other providers to guarantee freshness, quality and authenticity.
WHAT STEAK TO TRY FIRST?
You have the whole cow to choose from, and every steak is different. Depending on what you're going to cook, you will be better off selecting the right cut for the preparation in mind.
Your middle cuts (ribeye, strip loin and filet mignon) are always a great starting point as you can taste and compare between these three cuts often offered and compare. The ribeye is going to be the most fatty—for some people, too fatty, but for others it will be the most incredible flavor ever. Japanese Wagyu is highly personal...each person will enjoy something different depending on tastes and preferences. A Japanese Wagyu ribeye cap can be the most succulent bite of beef ever.
This is how we cook a Japanese Wagyu ribeye:
We import a bone-in ribeye (aka "cowboy steak") which is more similar to what we Americans are used to eating when it comes to a cut of non-Wagyu beef. This is a thicker-cut steak.
The strip loin is slightly less fatty than the ribeye. It's a more consistent steak in marbling and texture. We recommend this as the best steak for sharing.
It's hard to decide—you'll have to taste them all. If there's one Japanese Wagyu steak that's a must, it's the filet mignon. With regular beef, filet mignon is tender but tends to be rather "meh" when it comes to flavor. Not with Japanese Wagyu. When it comes to Japanese Wagyu A5 grade filet mignon, the intramuscular fat makes this a filet mignon that's not only tender but with fragrant, big and heavenly flavor.
HOW MUCH TO PAY FOR AUTHENTIC A5 JAPANESE BEEF?
Expect to pay anywhere from $35-$65 per ounce at a reputable steakhouse or restaurant. If buying to cook at home, prices will be closer to $9-$12 per ounce. If you find it for less, always ask why. Many chefs and butchers are relatively new to Japanese Wagyu. It's always OK to be curious and ask about sourcing.
You can save a bit of money by buying a roast. The prime rib (ribeye), strip loin roast (strip loin) and whole tenderloin (filet mignon) can be easily cut into steaks. You can, say, break down thicker steaks or cook Japanese Wagyu as a whole roast.
HOW MUCH TO A5 JAPANESE BEEF DO I NEED TO BUY?
Most people will feel satisfied with 2-4oz of Japanese Wagyu. That's because Japanese Wagyu is very rich and intense. Think about luxurious ingredients like foie gras or caviar. It's about quality over quantity. Japanese A5 Wagyu is meant to be shared and enjoyed as an experience.
BEYOND THE MIDDLE CUTS...
Once you have tried the tried and true more frequently available cuts— ribeye, filet mignon and strip loin—it's time to explore the rest of the cow. It takes a little (but not much) more skill and imagination to cook and enjoy other cuts, just as with regular beef.
A5 Miyazaki picanha is one of the top sellers at Meat N' Bone. Both the steak and the roast are not only rarer cuts to find but have a "beefier" taste than the rest. This is a hard to find item.
We're particularly fond of our A5 burger patties as a relatively inexpensive way to try Japanese Wagyu. The key is to prepare the burgers as simply as possible—you don't want much else between the buns to overwhelm the beef. Think minimalist.
Another very interesting cut is the Miyazaki sirloin roast, which is a large piece of sirloin. Like the picanha, it's got more chew than more frequently found cuts, and it's also so flavorful. You can cut the sirloin roast into "baseball steaks" (which we love for its appealing rounded shape) or make shabu shabu or get creative with so many other preparations, both traditional Japanese and really any dish from any culture that calls for beef. As a roast, it's probably the most affordable way for a larger group of people to experience Japanese Wagyu.
As for cooking tools and methods, we love Japanese Wagyu right off the grill. Your cast iron skillet, your stove and oven will be more than enough.
Whatever you do, once you try it, you'll instantly know why Japanese Wagyu is considered a #OneBiteWonder.
A5 BEEF ALLOWS YOU TO GET CREATIVE
The tenderness and incredible flavor of Japanese Wagyu allows a cook to get creative. Unlike with non-Japanese Wagyu, Angus and other regular beef, the more humble "off-cuts" of Japanese Wagyu such as the sirloin or the chuck (while less often seen and sold here in the U.S.) are still flavorful and tender enough to be consumed many different ways, whether burgers, steak, shabu shabu, sukiyaki, teppanyaki...whatever you desire.
In fact, Meat N' Bone opened a sister restaurant concept featuring Japanese Wagyu dishes. Come say hello and join us at The Wagyu Bar in Miami, Florida!
We slice Japanese Wagyu very thinly, add a homemade sauce, a bit of sushi rice and torch the nigiri table side. Delightful!
Olive Wagyu Carpaccio
We love Italian food, so when we got our hands on some olive-fed Wagyu we could not pass up on the opportunity to do an Italian twist on the dish. We slice the Wagyu very thinly and season lightly. The marbled fattiness of Japanese Wagyu gives this carpaccio a magical taste.
You can buy this cut at Meat N' Bone (order here) and make this at home in minutes.
You either love or hate beef tartare. If you're like us, every time you see it on the menu at a restaurant, you order it. At The Wagyu Bar we mixed Japanese Wagyu, Bachan's artisanal Japanese BBQ sauce and avocado to make a twist on the traditional beef tartare—and it is a must.
THE KATSU SANDO
If there's one thing we could choose as a last meal for the Wagyu-obsessed like ourselves, it'd be a Japanese Wagyu Katsu Sando. It has been The Wagyu Bar's signature dish; this $120 sandwich has been featured on TV and is beloved by celebrities, influencers, visitors and locals, including many regulars of our restaurant.
If you've never had a Wagyu Katsu Sando, we recommend you do so ASAP. We actually wrote up a "how-to" so you can make it yourself at home.
What is it? A crunchy, panko-breaded and fried cutlet of Japanese Wagyu (we like to use our Miyazaki) nestled between two buttery slices of toasted Japanese milk bread (or regular white bread will do)—and topped with a tangy sauce.
PAIRING A5 BEEF
One of my favorite things to do is to pair Japanese Wagyu beef with other fantastic ingredients. Japanese rice is a good start. But things like foie gras, pork belly and caviar make for excellent additions.
Japanese Wagyu pairs well with sake, particularly a Honjozo which helps cut through the fat. If you prefer wine, go with a good California cabernet or a malbec from Argentina.
When preparing your meal at home, don't be afraid to pair Japanese Wagyu with non-Japanese steaks. I particularly love to make Japanese Wagyu the centerpiece of a meal—but will often serve other steaks as a complement...and to enjoy savoring the differences among the various kinds of beef with friends and family. At the end of the day, Japanese Wagyu is amazing, but so is a good ol' American USDA Prime steak.