Wagyu Beef of Japan
Cattle are not native to the islands of Japan. But their presence in Japan’s archaeological record reaches back as far as the 5th or 6th century C.E. Herds, such as that on the island of Mishima, have been isolated from subsequently imported breeds and suggest that the original Japanese cattle were relatively small. Because Buddhism, which came to Japan in the 6th century, proscribed the eating of four-legged animals, cattle were historically used primarily as beasts of burden, not as a source of meat. But in 1873 when the proscription was lifted as a result of Westernization, Japanese people began eating beef. Larger breeds were imported and bred with domestic varieties in order to increase yield. And it is these hybrids that form the breeds that produce the prized wagyu beef. In 1991, when Japan relaxed its rules pertaining to imported beef, less expensive imported beef threatened local production. But shrewd Japanese farmers responded by promoting the unique, flavorful qualities of domestic beef in order to secure market share: To the Japanese palate, taste trumps size and price.
When it comes to meat, it is said that the flavor is in the fat. And high-quality wagyu beef is copiously marbled with unsaturated fat, rich in oleic acid. It is therefore small wonder that Japanese wagyu beef is one of world’s gastronomical luxuries.
The word “wagyu” literally means “Japanese cow/cattle,” “wa” meaning “Japanese,” and “gyu” meaning “cow/cattle.” There are four distinct wagyu breeds that have been specifically bred by the Japanese because of the breeds’ genetic predisposition to producing marbled flesh: Japanese Black; Japanese Brown (also known as “Japanese Red”); Japanese Polled; and Japanese Shorthorn. The four breeds are also occasionally crossbred with each other. Japanese Black accounts for approximately 90 percent all wagyu cattle. But genetics alone does not produce the beef that the Japanese—and now the world—regard as the finest beef on Earth. Husbandry also plays a significant role.
At the age of about eight to ten months, wagyu calves are put on special diets of grain, grass, hay, apples, and, to stimulate appetite, beer. And since the cattle are kept in stalls rather than allowed to roam freely over pastureland (so as to prohibit muscle-growth, keep the flesh soft, and encourage body fat), they are regularly brushed and massaged to promote healthy bodies and are cleaned with saki wine to keep ticks and fleas at bay. After two years, the flesh of the fattened cattle is laced with striations of primarily unsaturated fat which imparts flavor and makes the meat exceedingly soft. The meat is officially graded based on marbling, color, firmness, and fat color and quality, with a total of 15 grades possible. And through a detailed 10-digit numbering system, a particular cut of wagyu beef can be tracked to as far back as the maternal grandsire of the slaughtered animal. Telephone Apps and scanning devices allow customers to verify wagyu authenticity. A recognizable wagyu certification mark verifies wagyu pedigree, production standards, safety, and taste.
High-quality wagyu beef is so tender that it seems to literally melt in the mouth; and its flavor is so compelling that it is regarded as the world’s most delicious beef. In Japan, wagyu beef is cooked and served as thin slices (about the size of a slice of roast beef from a deli). When eaten with chopsticks, the slice is picked up, the desired portion is bitten off, and the remaining portion is placed back onto/into the dish, the process being repeated until the slice is entirely consumed.