Wagyu beef is, generally speaking, any sort of steak or meat that comes from a Japanese steer. The word translates roughly as “Japanese cattle,” and nearly any animal that grew up in that country usually qualifies. Outside of Japan, the term has a somewhat wider meaning, as farmers and distributors commonly use it to label beef from cattle that are descended from Japanese animals, even if the connection is generations old. It is usually marketed as a very expensive gourmet item that is dense in fat, highly marbled, and very tender, but there can be a lot of variety.
Meaning Within Japan
In Japan, the “wagyu” characterization is extremely general and includes all breeds and species. The cattle that give rise to the famed Kobe beef, a particularly tender and expensive product, fall within the definition, but then again so do most other cattle, related or not, that are raised in the country. Japanese butchers rarely ever use the term to describe their cuts, generally preferring to label them by species or farm.
The term tends to have a much different meaning abroad. Particularly in the United States and Australia, two countries with extensive beef cattle industries, manufacturers often use the name to suggest something exotic, foreign, or particularly delectable. Many claim that their animals are descended from Japanese cattle, but which breeds specifically — and more importantly, how close the relation really is — are things open to wide interpretation.
Beef bearing this name often actually comes from cattle that have been extensively crossbred with many other species, most of which are American or Australian in origin. There is a lot of controversy in the food world when it comes to what wagyu beef is or should be. Nevertheless, beef labeled in this way is often able to command a very high price and is typically viewed favorably by consumers.
People often associate Japanese beef with meat that is tender, highly marbled, and exceptional in taste. Most butchers “grade,” or rate, meat based on the ratio of muscle to fat, something that is often described in terms of “marbling.” A slice of meat that is mostly red is not very marbled, whereas one with rich streaks of white fat is. Though these fat ribbons often add calories, they also make for a much softer, more tender meal. Many of the cuts sold under the wagyu name are extensively marbled, which lends an almost buttery taste to the meat when it is cooked.
Relationship to Kobe Beef
Many international beef distributors draw connections between their wagyu products and Kobe beef, a famed style of tender meat that is grown exclusively in the city of Kobe, Japan. Japanese butchers tend to be very discriminating when applying the Kobe name, and usually reserve it for animals in the Tajima species that live almost exclusively in the Hyogo prefecture. The name is more loosely used abroad. Many butchers sell “Australian Kobe Beef,” for instance, or market “American Kobe steaks.”
In some cases, imitation or domestic versions are remarkably similar to the Japanese originals, but this is not always the case. Many countries, including the United States, have rules about how descriptions like “wagyu” can be used, but there is a lot of room for interpretation under most systems. As a result, some beef bearing this label is very closely related to the finer breeds of Japanese cattle that give rise to tender steaks like Kobe, but others have more in common with other domestic offerings. In some cases, the higher price may be the only distinguishing characteristic.
Cooks usually take a light touch with highly marbled meat, often cooking it as little as possible so that it can retain its flavor, juices, and texture. This sort of beef can be a good candidate for steak tartare, a dish in which the meat is served raw in the center; it is commonly also quickly seared to caramelize the outside while leaving the moist interior only barely cooked.
Most restaurants sell it in steak form, and this is how it is usually found in specialty stores and butchers’ shops, too. As with most meat products, though, there are many different options and preparations. There are a multitude of different steak cuts to start, and some parts of the animal are more tender and desirable than others. Lower-quality cuts are often turned into hamburger meat or sausage. Sometimes these products also carry the wagyu name, but not always.
Where to Find It
Japanese-style beef tends to be extraordinarily expensive, and as such, it is not often found in regular markets or grocery stores. Many farms sell it by special order only, either through specialty butcher shops or via mail or Internet sales. Gourmet stores can often supply it to customers, too, and it is frequently available in high-end restaurants around the world.
Fat Content and Concerns
Many manufacturers claim that this beef, though higher in fat than most other varieties, contains predominantly monosaturated fats, which some health experts claim can actually be somewhat helpful. These are the sorts of fats found in tree nuts, olive oil, and avocados, among other foods, and some research has shown that they might be able to lower cholesterol and improve overall health when consumed in limited quantities. Many purebred Japanese cattle do tend to have more monosaturated fat than other species, but how this passes on through crossbreeding is not always very well known. Whether or not a piece of meat labeled “wagyu” has these characteristics usually has more to do with its makeup than its name.
Just because a fat is helpful does not mean that it is actually healthy, though. Eating a diet rich in fats and oils can contribute to a range of different problems and ailments. Most medical experts recommend that people limit their consumption of red meat, particularly cuts with very dense marbling, to no more than one or two meals a week.