Behind Wagyu Beef: Essential Guide to Japanese Beef
Last updated: 12 November 2019
Every gourmet knows wagyu, the famous Japan beef that fetches prices three times higher than the European meat commonly available in Japan (as of June 2017). Wagyu is often called “the most expensive beef in the world,” with brands such as Kobe beef and Matsusaka beef being praised as cultivating the “art of meat,” raising every animal carefully and under rigorous management, so enjoying the beef delicacy is on the must-do list of many a visitor to Japan.
But what is really good Japanese beef and which things should you keep in mind when picking a restaurant and ordering? And is wagyu just another name for Kobe beef?
We have compiled a guide to answer your questions and help you navigate the vast world of wagyu!
What is Wagyu Beef?
"Wagyu" means "Japanese beef." It refers to four four unique breeds of purebred cattle: Kuroge (Japanese Black), Akage (Japanese Brown), Nihon Tankaku (Japanese Shorthorn), and Mukaku (Japanese Polled). This classification was established in 1944.
For those four wagyu breeds, crossbreeding with other cattle varieties is prohibited. These four strains emerged by cross-breeding with cattle mostly from Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century. Their common ancestor? Tajima cattle.
Generally, Japan-raised cows are referred to as “domestic cattle” in Japan. This includes wagyu but also other varieties, such as Angus, Jersey, or Holstein that were raised in the country as well. Even imported cattle can be counted as domestic if the feeding period in Japan is longer than the feeding period overseas.
Japanese wagyu breeds
- Japanese Black
- Japanese Brown
- Japanese Shorthorn
- (Nihon Tankaku)
- Japanese Polled
- (Nihon Mukaku)
- Angus, etc.
Wagyu Brands and Grades
A lot of Japanese restaurants offer wagyu beef and barbecue dishes – so how do you know the quality of the beef? The main criteria to be on the lookout for are brand and grade. Let’s take a look at both.
The brand of the beef indicates the areas where the cattle comes from. The three most famous wagyu areas are Kobe in Hyogo Prefecture, Matsusaka in Mie Prefecture, and Ohmi beef from Shiga Prefecture. In total, Japan boasts over 150 beef brands from the Japanese black, so if you see a restaurant offering wagyu, check (or ask for) the brand or production area.
The other important indicator of wagyu quality is the grade. You’ll often see grades such as “A5” written on a restaurant’s signboard or menu – a classification that refers to a universal system, grades awarded by a member of the Japan Meat Grading Association.
The “Yield Grade” is marked by letters from A to C, indicating how much high-quality meat one cow offers, not counting parts such as skin and internal organs, of course. The highest yield grade that can be attained is A.
This letter is then followed by a number between 1 and 5 – this is the “Quality Grade.” Four criteria determine how high the quality grade is: marbling, meat color and brightness, firmness and texture of meat, and color, luster, and quality of fat.
As such, A5 is the highest grade that wagyu can get and, also, the most expensive. Once you know what the wagyu grade system is all about, it will be a tremendous help in making a decision when choosing a restaurant or what to order.
・ A to C: The Yield Grade, with A being the highest.
・ 1 to 5: The Quality Grade, determined by four criteria, with 5 being the highest.
Japanese Beef: The Most Popular Wagyu Cuts
Just like any beef, wagyu has all sorts of different cuts with their own unique flavor and aroma. The most sought-after is sirloin meat (サーロイン / sāroin), generally used to make wagyu steak or sukiyaki.
The meat around the loin boasts a fine marbling and thus makes for the best cuts to savor the characteristic taste of wagyu beef. Another great choice is the rib roast (リブロース, riburōsu), offering a nice balance between marbled and lean meat and this cut is most often used for shabu-shabu, Japanese fondue.
Other prime cuts of include chuck flap (ハネシタ, haneshita), making for a roast of the highest quality, as wekk as bottom flap (カイノミ, kainomi), a small, delicious part of the rib area.
A lot of Japanese-style barbecue restaurants, called yakiniku, serve such rare cuts that every Japanese cow only has one to offer of. Below is a list of popular cuts among Japanese gourmets, to make your choice even easier:
1) Wagyu Sirloin (サーロイン / sāroin)
・ Description: regarded as the best of beef cuts. From the loin.
・ Appearance: a fine, mesh-like marbling.
・ Taste: a rich, full-bodied flavor that spreads throughout the entire mouth.
・ Try as: steak, shabu-shabu, sukiyaki.
2) Wagyu Skirt Steak (ハラミ / harami)
・ Description: the diaphragm, a cut from the plate. Sometimes also called “sagari” (サガリ).
・ Appearance: a deep red meat that is actually offal.
・ Taste: despite being an offal, skirt meat tastes like actual red meat.
・ Try as: barbecued with a rich sauce.
3) Wagyu Offal (ホルモン / horumon)
・ Description: usually refers to different kinds of offal. Sometimes used for the large intestine (シマチョウ / shimachō)
・ Appearance: white and rather fatty
・ Taste: firm to the bite, fatty, and with a rich taste.
・ Try as: thoroughly barbecued until golden-brown, best enjoyed with a rich sauce.
4) Wagyu Ribs (カルビ / karubi or kalbi)
・ Description: “kalbi” is the Korean word for rib and generally stands for beef ribs.
・ Appearance: lean meat with a very fine, mesh-like marbling.
・ Taste: the marbling makes for a deep flavor.
・ Try as: plain or with a hint of salt.
5) Wagyu Brisket (肩バラ / katabara)
・ Description: a cut from the breast or lower chest part.
・ Appearance: layers of lean meat and fat, a rather tough cut.
・ Taste: tender after cooking, with a firmness to the bite close to ribs.
・ Try as: boiled in stews, ground as hamburger
6) Wagyu Tongue (タン / tan)
・ Description: beef tongue.
・ Appearance: can be cut into slices of dozens of centimeters long. Often thinly sliced.
・ Taste: a unique, acquired taste with an equally unique texture.
・ Try as: briefly barbecued, tastes best with salt and lemon juice.
7) Wagyu Chuck Eye (肩ロース / katarōsu)
・ Description: a roast from the meat between the shoulder and back.
・ Appearance: fatty towards the head, with a fine marbling.
・ Taste: a wonderful balance of lean meat and fat.
・ Try as: sukiyaki
8) Wagyu Ribeye, Spencer Roll (リブロース / riburōsu)
・ Description: from around the back and the ribs. One of the best cuts of meat, along with sirloin.
・ Appearance: great balance between lean meat and fat, beautiful marbling.
・ Taste: a rich umami flavor of excellent quality.
・ Try as: steak, sukiyaki, shabu-shabu.
Tajima Cattle: Root of all Wagyu
At barbecue specialty restaurants and steakhouses, you’ll often see the word “Kuroge,” Japanese Black on both menus and signboards. Among the four breeds, Japanese Black makes up the vast majority of wagyu with a majority of a whopping 95%. The most famous brands and areas, including Yonezawa, Miyazaki, and Sendai, as well as the three big wagyu brands of Kobe, Matsuzaka, and Ohmi are all Japanese Black.
As mentioned earlier, the common ancestor of the four wagyu strains is Tajima cattle, used for farming and agriculture since ancient times. The cross-breeding with European cattle made the meat of the Tajima cattle incredibly delicious. It is rich in “good fat,” such as Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, as well as monounsaturated fatty acids. That’s also the reason for the wonderfully smooth mouthfeel of wagyu, a characteristic that made it famous all around the world. Almost 100% of all Japanese Black beef in Japan can be traced back to Tajima cattle.
Wagyu Tips and Tricks: Reading the Menu
Especially yakiniku (Japanese barbecue) restaurants boast menus with a large variety of cuts and dishes. Instead of “kalbi,” the Japanese word for ribs, you’ll often see things like 上カルビ, pronounced jō-kalbi, or 上ロース (jō-rōsu). The 上 character means “up” or “above” and generally indicates that the meat is fattier than usual and of a slightly higher quality. Sharing this meaning is another often used expression: 特選, read as tokusen and meaning “special selection.”
Other characters you will come across in front of dish or cut names are 塩 (shio), meaning salt, and ネギ (negi), meaning green onion. This means that the meat has been marinated in sauce or comes with said toppings and can be understood as a recommendation by the restaurant – “We’d like you to try it with this.” The rule of thumb is to simply ask the staff if you are not sure or have a question!
Yakiniku Barbecue: Tasting Different Cuts
Japanese Black wagyu is used in many dishes, including classics such as steak and sukiyaki. One of the best ways to savor and try unique cuts is yakiniku, Japanese barbecue. A good place to do just that is a restaurant called Boya, located near Ueno’s Okachimachi Station. Boya offers a rich variety of choice cuts for reasonable prices, including sirloin and ribeye, but also rare delicacies such as chuck flap and inner shoulder. The restaurant’s secret is to purchase one entire cow from a selection of famous brands, including Yonezawa, Sendai, or Hitachi – always the one with the highest cost performance at the time of purchase.
We highly recommend ordering the assortment of cuts the first time you visit, which will allow you to try sirloin, ribs, chuck flap, and other delicious cuts. It’s a wonderful balance of marbled and lean meat, bringing out the characteristics and unique flavor of Japanese Black wagyu just perfectly. Boya boasts a variety of such assortments and another example is “Boya Ittomori” (4,980 yen, 4 cuts for 2-3 people), offering meat that is more on the fatty side, or “Marutokumori” (3,980 yen, 4 cuts for 2-3 people), just to name a few.
How much is wagyu in Japan? Wagyu for Every Budget
Most people expect to pay a ridiculously high price if they actually ordered Kobe beef, or even Matsusaka or Ohmi beef at a restaurant in Tokyo. However, not all places serving wagyu are upscale and expensive. Next to these three famous brands, Japan boasts a large variety of wagyu producers! Some might not be as famous or internationally known but taste great nonetheless and are far friendlier for the wallet, fitting in basically every budget.
Still – the demand for wagyu is rising all around the world and as every single cow is carefully raised by hand, it’s hard for the production to keep up. If you want to get to know the gourmet delights of wagyu for affordable prices, now is the best time!
Boya (Ueno Rokuchome Location)房家 上野六丁目店
- Address 6-6-6 Ueno, Taitō-ku, Tōkyō-to 110-0005
- Nearest Station Ochanomizu Station, 4 minutes on foot
Hours: 11:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m., 5:00 p.m. – 11:30 p.m.
Saturdays, Sundays, and national holidays: 11:00 a.m. – 11:30 p.m.
Closed: always open
Spots showcased in the article
- Boya (Ueno Rokuchome Location)
- 房家 上野六丁目店
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*This information is from the time of this article's publication.
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.