Sunday, 9 July 2017

Wagyu, Matsuzaka Beef, and Kobe Beef: What's the Difference?

The official MAFF Wagyu mark
A tour guide friend requested today's post (thanks A!) noting that one of the most common questions she is asked by foreign visitors is the one in the title. So what is Wagyu and what's the difference between the various kinds of beef? The first thing to note is that the kanji in Wagyu (和牛) is made up of the characters for Japan/ese and "cow" (the on reading of cow or ushi is gyū). Wagyu covers four breeds, with the Japanese Black (Kuroge Washu=黒毛和種) by far the most common. So Wagyu is basically Japan-produced beef  - fattened cattle born, bred, and slaughtered in Japan - that (a) is one of these four breeds (that is purebred cattle) and (b) is registered and traceable. Of course, other countries, notably Australia, also promote their own Wagyu-style beef, but this is not strictly Wagyu: Australian Wagyu, for example, includes crossbred cattle whose purebred genetic content is 50% or more of the total (they are also fed wheat and barley in contrast to only corn in Japan). Within Japan, certain regions are famous for their cattle production, and these include Matsuzaka (Mie), Kobe (Hyogo), Omi (Shiga), and Yonezawa (Yamagata). Kobe beef in particular has strong brand recognition outside of Japan and the association has a very swish website in Japanese, Chinese, and English including an excellent FAQ page (which tells us that only virgin cows and bullocks can become Kobe beef!). For an explanation why Kobe beef historically became the dominant brand outside of Japan, see here

The sign outside the Kuroge Wagyu Restaurant Hachi in Ometesando advertising a Japanese prime beef 150g sirloin steak for 3,700 yen
Kuroge Wagyu Restaurant Hachi (Omotesando)
There is also a grading system, made up of a letter (A, B, or C) and a number from 1 to 5. The letter refers to the yield - the amount of primal cut meat retrieved from the carcass, that is the meat to weight ratio - and bears no relation to actual meat quality. The number is based on four criteria - marbling (the streaks of fat known as shimofuri in Japanese), colour, firmness, and colour and quality of the fat - with the lowest of the four becoming the final grade allocated to the meat (5 is highest). You will often see A5 promoted on high-class restaurant menus and signboards (such as in the picture right - click here to see the menu of this restaurant) but in recent years  there has been some debate whether this is indeed the most delicious. Specifically, if the fat ratio is around 50%, the meat will certainly melt in the mouth but the actual meat taste may be lacking.

A picture of a Matsuzaka Wagyu 169g steak on sale in a local supermarket costing 2163 yen
Sendai Kuroge Wagyu in the supermarket
The interesting thing about Wagyu is that it is probably more commonly eaten (and talked about) by non-Japanese than regular Japanese: the grade 4 or 5 meat which make up most of the Wagyu exports are scarce in Japan. Wagyu itself is rarely sold in supermarkets and when it is (pictured left - note the lot or tracking number on the label) it is prohibitively expensive (¥1280/100g in this case). If a Japanese wants to splash out they may treat themselves to domestically produced (kokusan =国産)beef (¥594/100g in the picture above right), but Australian or American beef is far cheaper (¥198/100g for the latter when I went shopping the other day). Why so expensive? A common view is that it is because the cows are pampered with beer, music, and massages, though this is simply a myth; indeed, since 2015 Halal Wagyu has been available (presumably not possible if the cows were fed beer!), though the prices for this are astronomical: amazon sells one 200g Halal Kobe beef sirloin steak for ¥12,960 - or ¥6480 (£44/$57)/100g!

[UPDATE:  Just heard of a new Wagyu sandwhich shop recently opened in Meguro, Tokyo, that sells a range of Kobe beef deep-fried cutlet sandwiches, including one for ¥20,000 (£140/\180)! For more details see here]