The days of calling California “Burgundy” and all sparkling wine “Champagne” seem comically antiquated. Yet today, beef consumers experience the same mixed messaging in shops and restaurants with Wagyu beef.
Wagyu beef has clear parameters in Japan, where it originated. Since then, other countries have adopted the term for almost any heavily marbled beef with tenuous genetic ties to Japanese cattle.
The ubiquity of so-called American Wagyu, Australian Wagyu, Wagyu burgers (tip: skip), Kobe-style beef and the like might make one think Wagyu beef is common. But there’s a reason you see the beef portioned out in thin, delicate rectangles like fish on Japanese dinner tables and not giant slabs of meat.
Like caviar, foie gras and jamón ibérico de bellota, top-quality Japanese Wagyu is one of the world’s great culinary delicacies. And comparing Wagyu beef to “normal” beef is akin to comparing saffron to turmeric, or white truffles to chanterelles. It’s not so much a competition as a different product altogether.
Here, we break down how to distinguish authentic Japanese Wagyu beef from the other Wagyus out there, and how to enjoy Wagyu to make the most of the product.
What Is Wagyu Beef?
The phrase “Japanese Wagyu” is actually a redundant term, as Wagyu (和牛) can be broken up into the two words “wa” (和), meaning Japanese-like, and “gyu” (牛), meaning cattle. There are strict rules in Japan about what can be labeled “Wagyu” (more on that later), but other countries that claim to sell this high-quality product use the term “Wagyu,” even though the beef doesn’t meet the same standards.
In practice, it refers to four breeds; Japanese Black (黒毛和種), Japanese Brown (褐毛和種), Japanese Shorthorn (日本短角和種), Japanese Polled (無角和種) and any hybrids of these animals. Japanese Black cows are the most common.
These breeds were recognized and labeled as separate breeds in 1944, and since, Japanese regulations have governed their production and, eventually, export. Per the government organization Japan Food Product Overseas Promotion Center (JFOODO), Wagyu cattle are selectively bred over several generations, and parentage must be completely traceable to ensure genetic purity. To do this, the animals are tagged and monitored individually. Many farms have onsite veterinarians (or daily visits), feeding sometimes happens by hand, hormones are banned and meticulous paperwork is kept on every animal.