The term “Wagyu” is widely popular with foodies, especially those who like me, are also seeking the best steak in Singapore. But what exactly is Wagyu and why does simply adding this word beside a cut of steak cause its price to multiply into exorbitant denominations? What’s even more shocking is that plenty of diners are willing to part with such generous sums of money just to taste this type of beef.
In this article, I’ll uncover a few surface-level facts about Wagyu and share what I know about this gorgeous breed of cattle. It will also be as jargon-free as possible, since I know entries in sites like Wikipedia can be too technical for casual reading. You can also read about my consumption of Wagyu from GreenGrocer and Mikuni.
What is Wagyu?
Definition wise, I would define Wagyu as majestic grass grazers that provide beef unrivalled in both quality and taste. Then again, that definition might sound a little biased. So according to Wikipedia, Wagyu is any breed of cattle that is genetically predisposed to intense marbling and to producing a high percentage of unsaturated fat. The most desired grades of Wagyu involve intensely marbled beef, which can be easily seen as white swirls of fat partially covering the pink/ red beef.
Wagyu is a Japanese term, with “Wa” meaning Japanese and “Gyu” meaning cow. So it literally translates into Japanese cow. And apparently, the rugged terrain and isolated areas of Japan have resulted in different breeding and feeding techniques used to raise cattle. The most infamous techniques include feeding cattle beer and giving them massages. There are however misconceptions as to how these techniques affect the quality and taste of the beef, which is covered below.
There are four breeds of Wagyu; Japanese Black, Japanese Brown, Japanese Polled and Japanese Shorthorn. Aside from Japan, Wagyu is also known to be bred in Australia, the US, Canada and Scotland.
So Why the Hype?
Firstly, the inherent qualities of Wagyu are that it produces a high percentage of unsaturated fat, which is also known as ‘healthy fat’ that help reduce heart disease, lower cholesterol levels and a great replacement for saturated fats. This unsaturated fat also contains higher percentages of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, both of which are known to decrease the risk of heart diseases.
Secondly – and I can’t stress this enough – it tastes extremely good. The difference between Wagyu and ‘regular’ beef is usually more apparent in those with a marbling score (MBS) of at least 6. Personally, I find that it takes a delicate palate to detect the flavour in Wagyu with MBS 5 or less.
When you grill or fry a piece of Wagyu beef, the fat literally melts and forms a shiny coating over the meat. This releases the unique flavour that most steak enthusiasts will appreciate, on top of the amazingly tender meat. Great quality Wagyu will almost melt (I have yet to taste meat that literally melts in my mouth) and slide apart every time you chew on it. The aroma of Wagyu is pretty distinct and does smell a little like really fragrant butter.
Is It That Good?
Japanese Wagyu, the best of the best, is graded between A1 to A5, with A5 being the highest. I have been fortunate enough to taste A4 and while I can consume 400 grams in one seating, 200 grams was more than enough in this case. After going through a few pieces, I started feeling nauseated from the melted fat and things just got a little too greasy. Luckily enough, I didn’t order too much.
So I would say that Wagyu is delicious and every steak enthusiast should give it a go at least once in his/ her life. But take care that you don’t binge on it, since it would be a terrible waste to end up being disgusted by a meal that’s otherwise prized by most diners.
In the near future, I’ll work on another entry to cover other things about Wagyu, like how it’s graded, the differences between types of Wagyu and so on. For now, here are a couple widely misconstrued facts about the breeding techniques of Wagyu.
There are stories about Wagyu cattle being fed a beer or beer-influenced diet to improve the flavour of their meat, and stories about how these animals receive massages so as to once again, improve the quality and marbling of their meat. As explained by D.K. Lunt, the stories are only partially true.
Due to the lack of grazing land in Japan, most cattle live on feed instead of natural grass. There are circumstances where certain cattle will go off feed (e.g. the interaction of fat cover, temperature and humidity depress feed intake). During such instances,beer is included in their diet to stimulate their appetite. The cattle need to be fed a finishing diet months (sometimes years) before slaughter and this stimulation helps maintain a consistent intake of feed. Japanese cattle feeders do not associate the feeding of beer to an increase in meat quality.
Similarly in the case where cattle are massaged, it is not to improve the beef quality. It is simply to help cattle that are bred in captivity “loosen up”. Being confined in one place for months can result in stiffness of the muscles and massaging helps relieve such stressful conditions. Massaging also prolongs the length of time that cattle can be fed before they are slaughtered, which allows for higher fat deposition.
So there you go, two common misconceptions that have been explained. So while they don’t contribute directly to meat quality, these practices exist to help improve cattle’s living conditions without resorting to artificial or unnatural means.
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