Whenever premium beef is mentioned, most gourmands would cite Kobe wagyu beef from Japan as the best. And while it is undoubtedly the most popular and well-known, a number of different regions in Japan produce delicious and distinctive types of beef, too.
Japanese cows are said to live an emperor's life, which is why they produce the fattest and most succulent flesh in the world. Every cattle farmer in Japan has his own method of indulging their cows, from secret blends of soybeans, tofu byproduct or sake mash in the feed; mineral water to drink; and daily walks and supposed beer massages to encourage fat distribution. Some even play classical music to relax the animals, while making sure they receive plenty of time in the sun.
In addition, every region has a different terroir or uses a different breed of animal so much like a wine connoisseur will have a preference for a Burgundy over a Bordeaux, true beef-lovers are also able to differentiate and appreciate beef from different prefectures.
There are four breeds of wagyu :
- Japanese Black (Kuroge washu)
- Japanese Brown (Akage Washu)
- Japanese Polled (Mukaku Washu)
- Japanese Shorthorn (Nihon Tankaku Washu).
Not all wagyu are of the unusually fatty variety but those which are primarily Japanese black.The most famous wagyu are the ‘big three’ namely Matzusaka (Mie Prefecture), The Tajima blacks of Kobe (Hyogo Prefecture) and Ohmi (Shiga Prefecture). All three are from the Kansai region, south central of Honshu island.
Kobe beef is the most famous outside of Japan, and it refers to meat from the black Tajima-ushi breed of cattle, raised in the Hyogo prefecture. To qualify as Kobe beef, the meat must come from a bullock or castrated bull for purity reasons, slaughtered at designated slaughterhouses in the prefecture, and the rules is that each animal can only produce 470kg of meat or less. Most importantly for meat lovers, the marbling ratio of Kobe beef must have a Beef Marbling Standard (BMS) of six or above (out of a score of 12). Thanks to its high fat ratio, beef from Kobe is often said to have a consistency that is more like foie gras than steak.
Matsuzaka beef is more popular in Japan than internationally, the prime difference between Matsuzaka (from Mie prefecture) and Kobe beef is that the meat from Matsuzaka comes from female cows only, while Kobe meat comes from bullock or bulls. Whether it is that or because these heifers are not slaughtered until they are three years old (most other cattle is killed at two years or younger), beef connoisseurs say that Matsuzaka beef has a more complex and developed flavour, compared to beef from Kobe. Only 25,000 cows are killed a year, making the meat both rare and expensive. Most chefs handle Matsuzaka beef with care, either serving it raw as sushi, sashimi or tataki; and rarely cooking it aggressively on high heat.
Kagoshima, the prefecture, is home to one of the largest livestock industries in Japan and most gourmands are familiar with the Berkshire-style pork that comes from the region. However, Kagoshima actually produces the highest quantity of beef that comes out of Japan, with almost 20% of Japanese wagyu originating here. Thanks to the temperate climate and the Japanese black cattle breed, the meat that comes from Kagoshima is known for its tenderness as well as its well-balanced marbling. For example, Kagoshima beef is the preferred beef at Robuchon a Galera in Macau, where Le Boeuf Kagoshima is a signature dish.
Kumamoto may lead most people think of oysters, but the Kumamoto red wagyu cattle from the southern island of Kyushu are actually the only free-grazing cattle in all of Japan. The 60-000 head herd are known for an intense buttery flavour, extreme tenderness and enhanced marbling. They also have a higher percentage of monounsaturated fat than any other breed. The Kowloon Shangri-La has recently teamed up with Kumamoto prefecture's government. Chef Peter Ng at Shang Palace uses A5 Kumamoto black wagyu to create some interesting Chinese dishes such as boiled wagyu beef dumplings with pomelo peel and chicken broth. Purists will be amazed at the perfect simplicty of the stir-fried diced wagyu beef with plain sliced Kumamoto tomatoes.
Saga is located on the northwest part of Kyushu island, and beef from Saga is considered one of the big three in Japan, along with Kobe and Matsuzaka. According to executive chef Erik Idos from Nobu, the prefecture uses a special calf-rearing technology, ensuring that the cow suffers no stress at all. Unlike Matsuzaka beef, Saga beef is widely available here.
The traditional Japanese methods include cooking A5 Saga beef on a toban yaki (a ceramic plate) or as tataki; or you could try more innovative dishes such as a beef truffle nigiri sushi or even beef tacos.
Miyazaki has an abundance of natural spring water and as a result, Miyazaki beef - also from the island of Kyushu - is so highly valued that the region sends calves to other cattle-producing area in Japan, including Kobe. One of our favourite places to enjoy Miyazaki beef is at Kaetsu in the Grand Hyatt. Here, the A5 beef is cooked on the teppan or simply salt-grilled to bring out its famous melt-in-the-mouth texture; or in sukiyaki or shabu shabu to highlight its intense flavour. The preferred method of cooking (and eating) the beef is simply broiling it with salt, best one if possible, and wasabi. To enjoy the beef with sake, I recommend a strong and hot sake as the combination of the fatty beef and a cold drink will harden the meat in the stomach.
More about Wagyu on :
The grading system for Wagyu is a little long winded but nice to know since this scale influences prices greatly. The overall grade consists of 3 elements:
The Yield is to do with absolute yield of carcass. Higher the yield, higher the grade. The scale starts from C (less than 69%) to A (72% and greater).
Quality is indicator for colour, texture, luster, quality of fat and just overall quality of meat. It starts from 1 and the top beef maxes out at 5.
BMS or Beef Marbling Standard is a measure of the marbling or sashi. It starts from 1 and only the realy mythical stuff attains a 12.