(CNN)After sushi and ramen, Japanese beef is on the list of must-eats for many visitors to Japan.
This story, and several others on Japanese food, complement the CNNGo TV series. This month’s show features a culinary journey through the country, including a visit to the home of Kobe beef and a meeting with the founder of famous Ichiran ramen shop. See more of the show here: www.cnn.com/cnngo
But other than knowing that it tastes great and costs a lot, many tourists turn up with little knowledge of what to expect from Japanese beef.
Considered the caviar of beef in Japan, Wagyu (which literally means “Japanese cow”) refers to specific breeds of cattle that come from a direct, traceable and pure bloodline.
There are four Wagyu breeds: black (accounting for more than 90% of Wagyu beef), brown/red, shorthorn and polled.
In recent years, efficient marketing efforts have elevated Wagyu to near-divine status among foodies.
But they’ve also led to confusion about what Wagyu is and what separates Wagyu beef from the even-more heralded Kobe beef.
Here’s help for beef eaters visiting Japan.
What is Wagyu beef?
For more than 200 years during the Edo Period (1603-1867), Japan’s isolation from the outside world ensured the purity of its livestock, which over time became more and more homogenized.
When the country opened to world trade in the subsequent Meiji Era, Wagyu breeding accelerated.
Unlike cattle in other countries, which are often bred for a range of traits, Wagyu were and are raised with one goal in mind: supreme flavor.
“Genetics is everything,” says Jason Morgan, owner of The Meat Guy, a Nagoya-based meat importing business.
Wagyu’s striking characteristic is its pervasive marbling.
Achieving optimum and evenly distributed fat is a slow process.
Wagyu are typically bred for upward of 30 months.
Sukiyaki simmers thinly sliced beef in a pot with vegetables, usually bathed in a sauce made with soy sauce, sugar and sake.
A raw egg is served with the dish, used for dipping the beef after it’s extracted from the broth.
Shabu-shabu is a light and healthy meal made with strips of meat even thinner than those used for sukiyaki. The beef strips are briefly cooked in a simmering kombu kelp broth.
Finally, there’s beef tartar or “nigiri Wagyu sushi,” though this is a relatively rare preparation in Japan.
No matter how it’s prepared, virtually all restaurants in Japan have a signature dipping sauce or sauces, which often contain miso, sesame or citrus juice.
Wagyu beef myth: Fatty means unhealthy
Health-conscious eaters may be wary of the web of fat (called “shimofuri”) woven through slabs of Wagyu.
However, pure Wagyu contains mostly monounsaturated fatty acids (aka “the good fats”) rich in Omega-3s.
One study from the Japan Livestock Industry Association says Wagyu has up to 30% more unsaturated fat than Angus cattle.
You may have heard about the fifth “primary taste” on top of sweet, sour, salty and bitter: umami, a term and concept that originated in Japan, which describes a subtle sweetness and aroma.
The presence of unsaturated fats is what makes Wagyu beef so full of umami goodness.
Wagyu cows are rarely, if ever, given antibiotics.
One of the primary purposes of administering antibiotics, says Morgan, is to make an animal more feed-efficient.
This philosophy runs counter to the goal of Wagyu ranching, which is to raise fat, hungry cattle.
Myth 2: Japanese cows drink beer and get massages
While it’s true that the Matsusaka Cattle Council’s website advocates using beer to stimulate a cow’s appetite in humid summer months and massages for uniformity of fat and improved circulation, it cites no actual case studies.
At best, these techniques may be used sporadically by small-scale farms.
Some ranches may use sake to enhance the luster of an animal’s coat and Japanese TV programs have depicted ranches with prongs in cattle pens that animals rub up against to simulate a massage.
But we remain skeptical.
While it’s amusing to entertain notions of Wagyu cows happily guzzling beer while receiving rubdowns, there’s no evidence to suggest such practices have ever been commonplace.
The Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Promotion Association states that neither massages nor the feeding of beer or sake to cows is part of its standard rearing methods.
“How’s he going to feel a massage through his leather jacket, anyway?” asks Morgan.
Myth 3: Wagyu beef and Kobe beef are the same thing
A common misperception is that all Wagyu beef is Kobe beef.
In fact, only .06% of beef consumed in Japan bears the Kobe distinction, and only 3,000 cattle each year are certified as Kobe grade.
It wasn’t until February 2012 that the first Kobe beef shipment was sent outside Japan — to Macau.
The first (small) export to the United States was in November 2012.
Wagyu beef types are named for the region in which the cattle are raised, including, confusingly, Kobe.
For the impressive level of marbling in its Wagyu beef, the Kansai region produces the three “king” varieties: Matsusaka, Kobe and Ohmi.
However, beef from other areas can be equally tasty, says Lee of the Oak Door.
Kumamoto Wagyu, for example, comes from the rare Japanese brown breed and is a good choice for those seeking a leaner cut.
Although many ranching outfits in Australia and the United States are now raising Wagyu crossbreeds, only four facilities in Japan are certified to export Wagyu beef to the United States.
So, the easiest and tastiest place to get authentic Wagyu beef remains Japan.
Just one more reason to visit.
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