TOKYO -- Wagyu is gaining a following far beyond Japan, but diners in the West may be missing out on the best of its flavor. This premium beef, it turns out, is not really cut out for steaks.
In the Japanese grading system, the level of marbling -- the intramuscular fat that gives wagyu its silky, melt-in-your-mouth texture -- is the single most important metric in determining the quality and ultimately the price of the meat. That is why the Japanese Black species of cattle is used for nearly all of the wagyu produced in Japan, according to Kenji Yamamoto, president of Tokyo-based agricultural consultancy Goodtables.
Kuroge, as the breed is known in Japanese, have a unique ability to store large amounts of intramuscular fat. In some of the highest-end types of wagyu, the fat content can reach 80%. "It's like red meat floating on fat. ... It's not for thick slices of steak," Yamamoto said.
To make the most of this high marbling profile, Japanese restaurants tend to serve wagyu in thin slices, either as yakiniku, or Japanese BBQ, shabu shabu, a type of Japanese hot pot, or sukiyaki, a dish of braised beef and vegetables eaten with raw egg.
Anthony Puharich, CEO of Australian meat company Vic's Meat, which plans to sell Japanese wagyu, agrees: "A big education process has to happen now because we have a steak culture in Australia, and in order for wagyu to be successful there, consumers have to learn a different way to consume it."
The differences go beyond how the meat is served. According to Yamamoto, wagyu raised outside of Japan has a different flavor than those raised in the country, since the cattle are fed differently. Japanese wagyu is typically raised on a corn-based diet, which gives it a mellow and sweet flavor. Australian wagyu, on the other hand, tends to have a stronger taste because the diet is barley-based.
A word of warning for purists: While Japan strictly defines wagyu as one of four species of cattle native to Japan, other countries allow beef to be labeled as wagyu even if it is a cross between a wagyu animal and another species. This looser definition stands in sharp contrast to the rules governing Kobe beef, a brand of wagyu that has gained a global following. The coveted Kobe label is only given to cows born in Hyogo Prefecture and raised according to strict standards set by an association of producers and distributors.
Yamamoto believes the Japanese wagyu industry has its own shortcomings, however. The grading system has led to a relentless focus on marbling -- an approach that goes against the Western trend toward healthier, organic food. And while some chefs prefer redder meat, farmers are discouraged from raising animals with lower fat content because they fetch lower prices.
Fumihiko Sumiyoshi, owner of the prominent sukiyaki restaurant Chinya, triggered a debate within Japan's beef industry last year with a blog post in which he wrote, "The excessive marbling pursued by some producers and municipalities has taken a toll on taste, causing consumers to avoid highly marbled meat." The restaurant has stopped using wagyu with the highest level of marbling and now labels the wagyu it does use as "properly marbled."
Animal welfare activists have also labeled some practices used in raising wagyu as unethical, for example adjusting a cow's intake of vitamins in such a way that it produces more fat.
"Producers in the U.S. and Australia have a much more open mind when it comes to wagyu," Yamamoto said. "I think there may be a day when foreign farmers can produce better-rated wagyu."