Japan is known for the most modern, expensive and best products and services in the world. In Japan you can buy the most expensive fruit or vegetables and also in Japan you can eat the most expensive and the best beef. Wagyu which is made from Japanese cattle is the highest quality beef, whose characteristic feature is a marbled pattern created by fat and muscle fibers. Wagyu is so delicate that it melts in your mouth, and getting such effect requires a lot of work, effort and ideas. Breeders in Japan compete with each other in coming up with new ways for the cows to lead a comfortable, stress-free life. Little activity, proper diet and relax are the main factors that make it possible to create the best beef in the world. Everyday massages, drinking beer or maybe listening to classical music? Breeders use different methods, and which one is the best one is settled during the competition. Its purpose is to select the prefecture of the best quality cattle. However, cattle weren’t always a source of food for the Japanese people. Cattle were used as draft animals, treated and worshiped as a sacred animal, and it was also a source of entertainment during bullfighting. Nowadays, beef is eaten in many different ways. Not only as steaks, but also in dishes such as shabu-shabu, sukiyaki or even sushi. If you want to try the most expensive and the best beef, then you need to know rules of its classification. You should also be familiar with beef that each prefecture may offer you..
Ox – a draft animal, holy and not to eat…
Cattle aren’t native to the Islands of Japan and nobody knows exactly when and where it first came from. We know, however, that cattle breeding existed already in Japan around the 5th or 6th century. It was also used in holy rituals, for example in order to bring rain. The descendants of this ancient cattle can be seen now only on the island of Mishima. It is located far away in the Sea of Japan. Foreign breeds of cattle have never arrived here and therefore a pure blood line has been preserved. There are less than 100 Mishima cattle on the island and they are protected as a living National Monument of Japan.
In Japan’s history there was a time when beef and other meats were removed from the Japanese diet. With the arrival of Buddhism in the sixth century, there was also a ban on killing animals and eating meat. Initially, it concerned only monks, but in the seventh century, it also became valid for ordinary people. The emperor of Japan issued a series of decrees banning meat eating. However, it didn’t include birds and fishes. Between the 8th and the 10th century, So began to be made – a product similar to cheese, which was obtained by boiling cow’s milk, but it was only available to high ranking aristocrats. Meat and animals products appeared again in the diet of the Japanese people only in the second half of the nineteenth century. This doesn’t mean, however, that cattle have completely disappeared from the Japanese life. Bulls are strong, which is why they were always necessary in agriculture and transport. About a thousand years ago, aristocracy rode carts pulled by oxen, not horse-drawn carts. Although they were much slower, they were a status symbol. Farmers used oxen to plow fields, transport crops and even during agricultural rituals. So far, in the city of Kita-Hiroshima, there is a folk ritual called Mibu no Hanadaue during which people pray for good health for oxen and a good harvest of rice. Decorated oxen plod through the paddies to prepare the soil for planting. Then the women in colorful costumes dance and plant rice. Oxen can also be the subject of a religious cult. In many temples, you can find statues of oxen that are considered messengers of the gods.
…and then to eat
For many centuries beef was not consumed in Japan but at the end of the nineteenth century, Japan began to open itself to Western culture. The ban on eating meat was lifted and the Japanese people began to eat it more often. Beef became a symbol of Japanese westernization. At that time, a gyunabe dish was invented. It used beef but in such a way that the taste would suit Japanese taste buds and habits. Pieces of beef would be placed in an iron pot and cooked with a miso-based sauce. As beef consumption became more and more common, Japanese small domestic breeds were crossed with larger foreign breeds to create improved beef cattle. This is the origin of today’s Wagy.
Currently, Wagyu is usually eaten in the form of a steak, which is prepared before your eyes by the chef. Everything is cooked on a Japanese grill, which is called teppanyaki. Beef in a piece is placed on it and fried on each side, then it is cut into smaller pieces, which are conveniently to grab with chopsticks. The chef rotates the pieces all the time so that they are evenly prepared. In the meantime, the slices of vegetables and garlic are also fried on the same grill. Wagyu must be grilled longer than traditional steaks and you don’t choose how it should be prepared. The fat should warm up well so meat becomes aromatic and melts in your mouth. Beef is not previously marinated or even salted. You get various additives, standard ones such as salt and slices of golden garlic, as well as additional spices and sauces. Each small, valuable piece you can taste with another ingredient. Wagyu is also eaten in the form of very thin slices, which are boiled in various kinds of broths and sauces. However, about shabu-shabu or sukiyaki dishes I will tell you another time.
How to recognize the best Wagyu and how to produce it?
Every beef originating from Japan is called Wagyu and has a characteristic marbled pattern. It is created by fat that interweaves meat and the more fat, the better quality and more delicate, richer beef is. It is also one of the Wagyu grading criteria and we can distinguish as many as 12 levels by which meat can be classified. Levels 8-12 is the best beef, which receives an A5 quality rating, grades from A4 to A1 mean lower quality of meat. In addition, the color of fat and meat, its firmness and texture, as well as the yield are assessed. Each region produces beef with characteristic features. Except traditional beef farming areas, such as Matsusaka, Miyazaki, Omi and Kobe, over 20 other areas in Japan produce officially recognized brands. One of the newer varieties is beef from the Hida region. The best beef comes from the above regions and its quality rating is A5. It costs only about 50 $ for 100 grams. A restaurant or store in which you can buy it should have a certificate of originality.
Several factors affect the quality of meat. The basis for feeding cows is fodder, calories rich grains, hay and grass, which are given in proportions appropriate to the growth phase. Breeding is quite long, cows come to the farm when they are 8-10 months old and for the next 2.5 years they are cared for by breeders. It is important that they gradually gain weight, because only then meat has a chance to get a characteristic pattern from fat. The next issue is genetics, of course. Descendants of bulls who won competitions for the best Japanese Wagyu, now also provide the highest quality beef. Maintaining the line of known and appreciated bulls throughout Japan is possible even after their death, because sometimes their sperm is frozen. Hygiene is strictly observed on farms. Employees and other people who enter there must undergo the decontamination process. It is also important that the animals do not get stressed, that is why there is played music, animals are massaged and rubbed with oils.
The breeder’s work is not only about feeding and keeping order, but they also teach their cows how to stand which is important during competitions for the best Wagyu. Jury not only assess structure of cow’s bones, theirs muscles, brightness of the eyes and the firmness of the ears, but also the character and posture, which is why breeders and animals must cooperate with each other. A strong bond is formed between them. When the epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease took place in Miyazaki Prefecture in 2010, as a result of which over 30,000 cattle were killed, the despair of breeders was not only due to the loss of a valuable source of income. It was like a loss to a beloved animal for them. They still lay flowers in places where their animals have been buried and apologizing for not being able to protect them.
The consumption of beef in Japan is smaller than other types of meat. Japanese beef the best suits the tastes of the Japanese people but it’s expensive. Red, lean meat, even the highest quality, such as Argentine beef, is not very attractive for them. Tasting the best Wagyu is supposedly an amazing experience. After trying it, your life will never be the same again, so if you have the opportunity and free 50 dollars, do not hesitate to try it.