Samui Wining & Dining
Wild about Wagyu?

The what, where, when and why.

 The what, where, when and why.Even the keenest carnivores with the heartiest of appetites may scratch their heads when it comes to really defining Wagyu. It’s beef from a small area somewhere in Japan, right? The best kind? The cattle are fed on beer and get massages? Yes, yes and yes. Well, sort of. Here’s the lowdown on Wagyu, what it is, isn’t and what it might be.

First off, misconceptions. Some people believe Wagyu to be a province in Japan where all Wagyu originates. Definitely not true. ‘Wa’ is simply a word in Japanese for ‘Japanese’ while ‘gyu’ means ‘cow’. Japanese cow. So technically it could mean any cattle raised anywhere in Japan. However, in practice it refers to a special breed of cattle. Not just in Japan. It can equally refer to such cattle that have been bred elsewhere in the world.

For example, in the mid-70’s, four prime specimens from Japan were exported to the USA, where they began North America’s own mighty Wagyu stock. Wagyu is similarly now found is such far-apart places as Britain and Australia. And what about Kobe beef? Is this synonymous with Wagyu? Not exactly. Kobe beef is comprised of a special, highly-prized strain of Wagyu, which is raised in Kobe’s surrounding areas.

But back to Wagyu itself. Many people think that Wagyu is an original Japanese breed. They definitely aren’t. Their origins are part native Asian, part British and part European. The first Wagyu were bred in Japan’s Shikoku region in isolated pockets - it’s very mountainous there, and cattle were slow to migrate to other areas. For a while the herds were crossbred with over half a dozen other strains, but then it was noticed that the herds were showing too many variations. So in the early 1900’s, the herds were closed once again to outside bloodlines. Since that time, the breed has been monitored closely by the Japanese Wagyu Registry which meticulously carefully maintains records on all cattle. Purity is everything.

Japan sees Wagyu as a national heritage; the world sees it as its best beef globally. The flavour, tenderness and texture are unparalleled anywhere. Many people therefore consider it to have a lower fat content than most types of beef. The complete opposite is true however: Wagyu is very fatty; in fact it’s more fat than meat. It’s a particular kind of fat that dissolves at a low melting point, contains all the flavour of the meat and is mono-unsaturated.

Wagyu’s also incredibly expensive – expect to pay 8,000 baht for a good standard Japanese pure-bred kilo. However, the top price possible is 23,000 baht per kilo, for the best of the best, again in Japan. At astronomical prices like this, you'll be eating the juiciest steak in the world, and unless you're a millionaire, it’ll definitely be a special treat. Tender as lightly cooked fish, and both savoury and rich, a sliver of Wagyu this pure has aficionados coming back for more. Expect softness like butter, tastes that are out of this world.

Wagyu cattle raised in Japan are fed on beer – to raise their appetites in the hot Japanese summer, and keep them feeding on the grain that gives the meat that famed marbled effect. They're also massaged too. The animals are kept indoors in cramped spaces – so the massaging eases their limbs. Critics question why grazing animals are imprisoned indoors, while ecologists are quick to point out the unsustainability of grain-fed cattle. Elsewhere in the world, some animal breeders may be kinder, opting to give their Wagyu three years roaming outside. Cattle are generally slaughtered around this time.

Not all Wagyu meat is created alike. As with beef in general, the name on the packet is simply the breed of the bull that fathered the animal that’s now become beef. The father may well have been Wagyu, but not the mother. Non pure-bred Wagyu breeding is easy: take a herd of Angus and Wagyu semen in vials. The offspring are then classed as Wagyu, no matter if a mixed breed animal won’t produce the same kind of meat as one that comes from pure stock. However, your Wagyu, even if the source remains a bit murky, is still likely to be very satisfying in taste. And you won’t have to pay a price tag so hefty that even a millionaire might blink twice. That’s the big advantage. And that’s why Wagyu is appearing everywhere.


Dimitri Waring


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