Refers specifically to juicy red meat with a soft marbled texture and rich flavor. Wagyu is known for its exquisite flavor, with a creamy, tender texture that dissolves in the mouth.
Where does wagyu cattle come from, considering that until the start of the modernizing Meiji-period in 1868, Japan had no meat or dairy industry and Japanese normally did not eat meat? Cattle did of course exist in Japan but the animals were used as pack animals, or to pull carts or plows. Those beasts of burden were not automatically the best sources of juicy meat - in the late 1880s, British and European continental breeds as Brown Swiss, Shorthorn, Devon, Simmental, Ayrshire, Holstein and Angus were imported and crossbred with the Japanese indigenous cattle, a situation which lasted until 1910 when the price of crossbreeds collapsed. During these two decades, selective breeding methods were used to achieve specific traits that were favored by Japanese consumers, leading to the present-day wagyu.
[Wagyu for use in Shabu-shabu. Photo Ad Blankestijn]
Depending on regional differences and crossbreeding, there are four breeds:
- Japanese Black. From work cattle in the Kinki and Chugoku regions. 90% of all wagyu is of this breed. Known for its marbling, the fine strips of fat which have an exquisite flavor. The finest-grade and most typical wagyu on the market. Dominant strains are Tajima (Kobe beef), Tottori, Shimane and Okayama. Tajima cattle was originally bred for its heavy forequarters because the primary use was to pull carts. They tend to be smaller and less heavily muscled than the Tottori breed, used as pack animals, and selected for their size.
- Japanese Brown (also called "Red," Akaushi). In Kumamoto and Kochi, from breeding work cattle with Simmental. Low fat content, pleasantly firm, lean meat. Mild taste.
- Japanese Shorthorn. Tohoku region. By crossbreeding indigenous Nanbu cattle with the Shorthorn. Lean meat with low fat content, savory flavor.
- Japanese Polled. By crossbreeding the Japanese Black with Aberdeen Angus imported from Scotland around 1920. Very lean meat, with a chewy, meaty flavor.
Nowadays, each piece of wagyu cattle in Japan must be registered to ensure its lineage.
Several "strong" stories exist about wagyu, such as beer feeding and massaging. It seems both are true: beer is indeed sometimes fed to fattening cattle when appetite sags in the greatest heat of summer, and the animals are massaged with oil for 20 minutes from May to October to keep the meat soft - this also makes sense as Japanese pens are small and the animals have little exercise (there are no big herds grazing in wide nature in Japan!). And it is made possible by the fact that Japanese cattle farmers usually only fatten a few head of cattle at a time, so they can give them full attention. And the diet is of course very important - feed costs can be as much as 500,000 yen for three years of fattening per cow. But when the process goes well, the animals will fetch several millions of yen (sometimes tens of millions) at the auction.
Wagyu is used in many typically Japanese meat dishes, as Shabu-shabu, Sukiyaki, Miso-zuke, and of course... the "ordinary" steak!