There is beef and then there is Wagyu (pronounced Wha as it what + Gue as in argue). In the circles of fine dining, it is often mentioned in the same breath as Beluga caviar, white truffle, toro and Iberico ham. Wagyu beef is characterized by an intense marbling of fat obtained through selective cattle breeding in Japan over many generations, which gives it is unique buttery flavour and ultra tender texture. The veins of fat are most prominent when the meat is frozen and gradually fade off as the Wagyu warms up.
Because of its high fat content, Wagyu is often not served thick and is typically cut in sirloin style slices. That’s because its fat has to be melted to bring out the full flavour of the meat (that’s why bacon taste better with the fat melted away). If Wagyu is undercooked it tastes just like any other raw beef steak, except perhaps with a milder flavour. Medium is as rare as one would go for top grade Wagyu, and sometimes my preference is to have my A5 done medium-well, or it tastes a bit like I’m eating fat.
The ideal way to cook Wagyu is over an open charcoal grill, failing which you should at least use a cast iron grill pan with ridges. Sear on both sides twice, so you can get the nice criss-cross pattern. Use a bit of coarse salt to bring out the steak’s flavour, but refrain from using any tenderizer, marinade or sauce. Paint oil onto the steak instead of heating it up in the pan as it will reach smoking point. You can however serve your wagyu with thin slices of garlic that are fried till they are crispy, and/or flambe it at the very end with a shot of brandy without disturbing its intrinsic flavour. Estimate how well your steak is done is by observing its shrinkage.
Well this is a tautology since in Japanese Wa = Japan and Gyu = Cattle. Ironically, Wagyu is never referred to as Wagyu in Japan. All Japanese beef is branded by the area where the cattle is reared (you know just like French wines are designated by the location of their vinyard, not the grapes used), usually somewhere in the warmer regions of Kyushu or Southern Honshu. It is universally accepted that the best Wagyu is from Japan because of the high quality feed and depending on the individual regions, cattle are given massages, fed beer and all other kinds of overkill. Outside of Japan, the most commonly available types are Kobe, Kagoshima and Matsuzaka, although I have also come across Hida and Kumamoto. Dozens of other varieties such as Saga, Yonezawa, Mishima and Akaushi are available domestically but they are bred in smaller numbers and are rarely exported. Depending on the texture, colour and most importantly how fine and distributed the fat marbling is, high grade Japanese beef is scored between A3 to A5, with A5 (pictured) being the best. Remember the marbling pattern should be examined when the meat is very cold as the veins of fat are not white at room temperature. To give you an idea of equivalence, USDA Prime is about the same as Japanese A1. In case you were wondering, there is also B and C grade meat for stews etc. .
The Wagyu breeds are also reared in Austalia, Canada and the USA. These cattle are (mostly) from the bloodline of Japanese cattle and are fed using the ‘local equivalent’ feed, but are considered to be not as good as the their Japan bred cousins. They cost less (see notes), so this proof enough without going into a long discussion. This doesn’t mean Western Wagyu is bad in any way, they are still a premium meat by any standards. Speaking of standards, foreign bred Wagyu is graded at between M4 to M12 so if you are told a M-score, then you can assume the meat is not from Japan. Many a time restaurants will put Wagyu on their menu without stating the grade, which means its probably just a M4-5, so be mentally prepared to be disappointed. I would say M10 and above is equivalent to a Japanese A5.
American Kobe-style Beef
This is a cross between Wagyu and Black Angus, bred specially for the North American market in America. This beef has nothing to do with Japanese Kobe Beef except for the uncanny similarity in spelling. Its existence stems from the fact that Americans are so used to eating their steaks rare, since western beef gets tough if it is cooked to any meaningful degree. So the Angus component has been introduced to make Wagyu more ‘beefy’ even when it is rare. This makes sense, but then again if you are really into medium rare or rare tenderloin style steaks, why not go with an aged angus instead?
- Don’t take my word blindly about the difference in quality between Japanese A5 Wagyu and other beef, believe market prices. I have the prices of beef for steak from various countries on the right. They are from the same butcher’s counter in Singapore, so all the meat is fairly priced as imported beef. Gram for gram the Japanese A5 Kobe Ribeye costs 4x as much as US prime corn-fed Ribeye, the best grade of beef from the USA. It also costs 5x more than Australian Black Angus Fillet.
- When you are buying raw Wagyu, after the butcher slices the thickness you want off the slab, he is supposed to cut off the thick perimeter fat before weighing. Also make sure the grade of the meat is stated, or you might be overpaying.
- Cast iron grill pans must be stored with a coating of fresh cooking oil and wrapped in a cling film to prevent rusting.