By Justin Calderón
Sep 7, 2021
WAGYU BEEF IS EASILY THE KING of steaks, fawned over by Michelin-star chefs from Tokyo to Toronto for its decadently fatty, rich, melt-in-your-mouth texture that effortlessly seduces even the most jaded of diners. Yet, as legendary as this steak is, wagyu beef is still greatly misunderstood.
What really is wagyu beef? And how do you distill facts from all the hype surrounding the “caviar of beef”?
In fact, as soon as the topic came up, you probably asked the common refrain: Do breeders really massage the cow? Well, probably no.
“The story of cows being massaged is a bit of a legend,” says Ryuta Kawano, the former general manager of Zen-Noh America, the U.S. subsidiary of Zen-Noh, one of the largest wagyu purveyors in Japan, and a globally renowned wagyu beef expert.
“Not that it’s not true, but I would say this probably happens in much smaller farms where there are only a handful of animals. I don’t think a farmer who has 20 or more cows has the time to massage every cow and still complete the rest of his work,” Kawano jokingly adds.
Working in the wagyu beef industry since 2002, Kawano is considered a leading expert in wagyu beef in both Japan and the U.S., where he worked in Los Angeles and New York from 2014 to 2019 for the wagyu beef export business. He has also presented numerous seminars about the popular misconceptions surrounding wagyu beef alongside Dr. Daniel Botsman, a Yale agrarian-studies professor and Japanese-beef expert.
Perhaps his most important experience, however, is practical. Kawano has a developed a personal love affair with the meat over the years, claiming to now eat wagyu steak “at least three times a month.”
Kawano has based his seminars on ridding the world of hype about the mystic meat, including how to identify imposters and when to realize you are being targeted with deceptive marketing.
To set the record straight once and for all, we asked Kawano some burning questions about wagyu, from the basics to the esoteric, including what is wagyu beef, where did it historically come from, what gives wagyu steak its unique flavor profile and why the Japanese – who once worshipped cows – used to consume wagyu as a form of medicine.
What is Wagyu Beef?
According to Kawano, wagyu beef can be translated to wa, meaning Japanese, and gyu meaning beef; thus, literally “Japanese beef.”
“Japanese wagyu are specific breeds of cattle in Japan that are raised, fed and graded according to very strict standards, which allows them to receive ‘grades’ in accordance with their quality,” Kawano says.
However, you may have encountered wagyu grown in Australia or the U.S. – so-called Australian wagyu beef or American wagyu beef. This meat comes from Australian or American cows and can still be butchered into bona fide wagyu steak, but there are some important differences.
“In general, the main difference between non-Japanese and Japanese wagyu is that the former is usually crossbred, while in Japan they are raised as purebred pedigrees,” he continues.
Australian and American wagyu beef is almost always a crossbreed – in the U.S., the wagyu is usually crossed with angus beef, and the industry is uncontrolled and unregulated. This is a far cry from the structures of the industry in Japan, but that doesn’t mean the steak won’t have that mesmerizing marbling and distinct umami taste.
Nonetheless, in Japan wagyu cow breeders take their meat seriously (to say the least).
In fact, about 97 percent of wagyu beef comes from just one breed, the Japanese black cow, according to the latest statistics from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in Japan, and the cows must follow a rigid system of grading.
“There are only four breeds of Japanese cattle that are allowed to be classified as wagyu: Japanese brown, Japanese short horn, Japanese polled and the Japanese black cows,” Kawano says.
To officially classify as wagyu, these four breeds of cattle must be born in Japan and the ancestry of the cow must be able to be confirmed by a traceability system.
“Each calf born in Japan is assigned an ID number and registered on a database, which is updated with production and distribution information about the animal from birth through to the sale of the resulting meat,” Kawano says.
“The ID number on the label affixed to a pack of beef ensures the easy availability of information about who reared the calf, when it was born, and even which cow gave birth to it. This beef traceability system is well established in Japan.”
The meat is inspected and graded by the Japan Meat Grading Association, which grades wagyu based on yield grade and meat quality, among other factors. Importantly, meat quality is graded according to five classes, from 5 to 1, 5 being the highest, based on beef marbling, color and brightness of meat, as well as firmness and texture of the meat and the color and brightness of the fat, according to the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.
What makes wagyu beef “taste like butter”?
There is a common reaction heard from first-time eaters of wagyu beef. The meat’s fatty texture and appearance make it both look and taste like no other steak; this is of course among the top reasons for its famed reputation. Wagyu beef, Kawano says, has a similar fat profile to olive oil (not butter, but in that direction).
“The reason for this delicate texture is the natural marbling – or very fine distribution of intramuscular fat – which has a lower melting point,” Kawano says. “These characteristics come from fat that is rich in oleic acid, the so-called ‘good fatty acids’ that are also found in olive oil.”
Wagyu also has garnered a reputation for having signature tasting notes of peach and coconut, but experts still disagree about why these curious flavors arise. Indeed, Kawano says that the debate comes down to subjective flavor experiences.
“This may be a very personal association for each person,” he admits. “I believe these aroma associations are related to the oleic acid content within the wagyu fat. While there are many who do identify peach and coconut, perhaps many will relate it to other elements – similar to how it goes in a wine tasting.”
When did the Japanese develop a taste for wagyu beef?
Wagyu beef first appeared as we know it in the Meiji Era of Japan, also known as the Meiji Restoration, a time when the country was transforming from a feudalistic system into an industrialized nation.
“At the beginning of the Meiji Era (1868), eating meat became more popular and thus the beginning of selective breeding of cattle was done in order to achieve the desired quality that consumers wanted,” Kawano says.
The Meiji Restoration brought about new technology and cattle-rearing techniques, which allowed farmers to develop a more scientific classification system for how to raise and market their beef.
While it is rare to have a wagyu cow that has been subject to one of the much-purported massage regimes, it is true that Japanese breeders have long believed that the cows’ happiness forms a fundamental component of the meat’s quality.
“These cattle have a very good life where they are provided with highly nutritious feed, their health monitored closely to ensure optimum ‘happiness’ and have comfortable stables with fresh clean straw replaced regularly. In general, wagyu cows have a very relaxed life,” Kawano says.
This traditional regime has now become the gold standard for wagyu. The aim here is to provide the least stressful environment possible. A stress-free life means a tender bite, as high cortisol levels produce tense muscles and make beef chewy. But not wagyu, no.
What are the historical origins of wagyu beef?
Long before the Meiji period came about with its sweeping modernization, wagyu beef was still eaten — although illegally.
Like in India, cows were viewed as sacred in Japan during the Edo Period, a time of feudalistic warlords and devout Buddhism. Japan’s shoguns strictly forbade the consumption of animals (with the exception of fish starting in the year 737 – the origins of sushi), but some subcultures in Japan still choose to break the laws and eat wagyu beef, which they believed held medicinal properties.
“Historically, eating cattle was not common due to religious reasons,” Kawano says. “However, there was a culture where wagyu meat was ingested to maintain health as a sort of ‘medicine.’”
Although no longer strict vegetarians, the Japanese, Kawano attests, still show a type of Buddhist reverence for their food, especially for the wagyu.
“I believe Japanese culture in general still has a lot of respect for the life given in exchange for food. In most of the world, before a meal people wish each other a pleasant meal, such as by saying ‘bon appetit.’ In Japan, we say ‘itadakimasu,’ which is an expression of thanks for receiving that life in exchange for nourishing our own.
“So although eating meat has become more commonplace, respect for life is still very important in our society and that translates also to how we care for and raise our farm animals,” Kawano explains.
Why did a luxurious meat like wagyu have to come from Japan?
In the grand timeline of agricultural and food history, wagyu is a relative infant on the scene. But Japan’s strict regime for standards started a revolution 200 years ago that continues until today.
“The history of wagyu steak is still shallow compared to other food cultures,” says Kawano. “However, it is not recognized as an industry that is lagging behind because – needless to say – Japan’s inquiring mind for food and attitude toward creating better products have created high-quality wagyu beef,” he observes.
“I am convinced that wagyu is a valuable food that fully satisfies the five senses of any person who eats it.”