If you eat beef, chances are you’re a steak lover and know a good quality cut. You’ve also heard of ‘wagyu’ – the mythical Japanese import known for its fatty marbling that gives it a melt-in-your-mouth texture. Thanks to its popularity, more and more restaurants claim to serve wagyu which are sold at higher prices, but chances are most of them aren’t technically the ‘wagyu’ you think.
Wagyu technically means ‘Japanese cow’, so it has to come from Japan because everything from cattle feed to water quality imparts that unique flavour and texture to the meat. You’ve probably heard that some cows in Japan even get beer and massages to improve their quality – this is why their prices can be really high, and being incredibly rare adds to its value.
In fact, some of the most expensive wagyu in Japan fetch at least S$1,500 per kilo. So how can some restaurants here afford to charge as low as $40 for wagyu steak?
Every beef you eat has a grading system, like the American USDA or the JMGA (Japanese Meat Grading Association) which gives wagyu beef a grade from 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest) for its marbling. The highest, most expensive is the A5 grade.
Wagyu come from all over Japan – the most ‘prestigious’ are from Kobe (Hyogo prefecture), Matsusaka (Mie prefecture), Hida (Gifu prefecture) and Omi (Shiga prefecture), which are regularly graded A5. However, it’s not unusual to get a lower grade like a B4 for Kobe beef, which is cheaper.
Everybody knows ‘Kobe beef’ as the pinnacle of beef because of good marketing; but Matsusaka, Hida, and Omi beef are also in the top tier.
Chances are, if you’re seeing ‘affordable’ wagyu, it may not be one of the top tier wagyu we’re all familiar with, but regular beef’s fat cousin. There are 2 reason why restaurants get away with it:
Fat Cousin Treatment: Restaurants classify beef by the degree of marbling, or fat, running through the cut of meat. Wagyu is famous for its high marbling, and is graded accordingly, making the price of highly marbled cuts like Kobe super expensive. So some restaurants apply the legit treatment of artificial marbling to give their beef that marbling effect.
Artificial marbling is the process of injecting beef carcasses with melted or powdered animal or vegetable fat right after the butchering process. The fat then runs through the beef’s blood vessels to create a fake marbling effect. This practice has been going on for 50 years, and by the time it reaches restaurants, no one will know the difference.
Japanese cows gone overseas: When a restaurant serves ‘wagyu’, it’s technically Australian or American Wagyu. They get away with calling it that because the meat is from Japanese cows, although they’re raised in Australia or the US – kind of like foreign talent. While the quality is decent, only true beef experts can tell the difference in taste.
The real amount of beef imports from Japan is extremely small – in the case of Kobe beef, only 3,000 to 5,000 cattle are qualified for Kobe beef annually, most of which are consumed in Japan with very few exported overseas. This is why most of our meat imports are actually from Brazil, Australia, and the United States.
How can you tell if it’s real wagyu? Here are some pointers:
Pricing: Real wagyu is way more costly than regular beef, so if you see a $40 wagyu, it’s not technically ‘wagyu’.
The cut: Almost no one ever serves wagyu with a bone, because the point of eating it is for its soft marbling – so they’re often served as a ribeye.
The serving: No one will offer wagyu well-done, since you eat it for its soft texture – well-done meat can taste like cardboard. It’s also never served slathered in sauce; you only disguise cheap meat that’s gamey with sauce.
The first bite: Wagyu tastes best at first bite, because the fat coats your tongue to create that melt-in-your-mouth texture.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with eating any wagyu as long as you like it, and as long as you know you’re not getting ripped off, right?