Everything You Wanted To Know (or not) About: Wagyu

Thursday, December 30, 2010

[boneless wagyu prime rib roast]
Chances are if you've watched Top Chef or live in a food-centric town, you've heard of wagyu beef. And if you've eaten out at a restaurant, you've probably paid a pretty penny for it. Pronounced "wag-yoo", it means "Japanese cow" in Japanese. Along with its cousins the kobe and lesser known mishima beefs, are specially fed and raised cattle from Japan that yield extremely flavorful and tender beef. Specifically, these meats are highly marbled. So much so that they are sometimes referred to as "white beef." This means they have more fat dispersed among the muscle tissue throughout the beef. Fat is what both flavors the beef and keeps it moist during cooking, which in turn then tastes quite tender. Sounds bad for you, right?


The type of marbling in the wagyu (and kobe) is monounsaturated. Which without getting into the whole biology of it, is "good" fat and actually quite low in calories. In fact, wagyu and kobe are used to reduce cholesterol and help maintain ideal weight. That's right -- this is beef that you can eat rare that is actually good for you!

But it comes with a price. Wagyu is one of the most expensive kinds of meat, reason being that it used to be exclusively raised in Japan. Which if you've looked on a map is not a large country, so cattle raising is very limited. The specific diet the Japanese farmers would feed the cattle produced the wagyu cattle. Originally wagyu cattle were used as a beast in Kobe to help cultivate rice and were specifically not slaughtered and eaten. In fact eating any meat from a four-legged animal was prohibited in Japan for about 200 hundred years until the 1830s. There are five major breeds of wagyu: black, brown, polled, shorthorn, and kumamoto reds.

America and other countries have successfully crossbred their domestic cattle with the wagyu. In fact, Australia and New Zealand have successfully bred wagyu, Australia being the second highest producer of wagyu behind Japan. In 1910 in America the price of crossbreeds dropped, so the practice of crossbreeding animals wasn't used anymore and instead replaced with line-breeding, where the cattle became specific to regions and terrain (interestingly, what wagyu was to begin with). In 1976 the first wagyu cattle from Japan were imported but not much success was found in breeding them here, as the wagyu are very climate and terrain-specific animals and thus thrived more back in Japan. But in the mid 1990s a few more wagyu were imported and studied at Washington State University. They were also brought to the US to extract and sell the semen to Australia for breeding, avoiding expensive taxes and trading issues between Japan and Australia. Japan then saw that Americans could also breed the cattle and they agreed to cross-breeding with our domestic herds. The result was higher marbling with red meat of our domestic cattle, called American Style Kobe Beef.

But still some retain the genetic strands of the wagyu. What we have today both in America and Europe and other countries in the world is an insanely intricate process by which other countries have to nominate, submit DNA and seminal samples to Japanese wagyu farmers, and upon their acceptance of that other country's domestic herd being "good enough to mate with the wagyu," the cattle or semen is sent to that country for breeding. The Japanese then issue its stamp of approval, for lack of better words, and the resulting cattle is then certified in that country as wagyu. In America, this is done by the American Wagyu Association. Despite all of this, Japan still considers its own domestic wagyu as the best in the world, with the US and Australia in disputed number 2 and 3 positions respectively.

So how does it taste????

Well, for research for this blog I picked up a wagyu prime rib roast for our Christmas dinner. It was only a 3 pounder but cost $80. I gain pounds and go into debt for you, dear readers. So I prepared it with a simple kosher salt and coarsely ground black pepper seasoning, placed it in a hot oven and roasted away until done.

The Verdict
This was insane. Truly, the best meat I'd ever had. More so than the flavor of the beef being pleasantly sweeter than most beefs, I was impressed most with the texture. You don't know Melt In Your Mouth beef until you've had wagyu. It was beyond tender, each piece cutting easily with your fork and knife and very easily chewed. Actually, I remember rather minimal chewing was required. It was very moist and retained the moisture well. That famous fat certainly did melt right within every crevice of the roast and just dispersed the goodness throughout. In conclusion: worth every penny. Although I enjoy a prime rib roast, the one we got was boneless and I'm a big fan of bone-in anything because I think it offers even more flavor. My next birthday I hoping to get a couple of bone-in wagyu rib eye steaks to grill up. Heaven.

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