These days many people know that the best beef comes from Japan, and Kobe beef has become a household name around the world.
Whether you decide to import some from Japan, or throw some in your carry on backpack during a visit, it is a delicacy that is definitely worth having. But what makes Japanese beef so good and how much does it really cost?
Wagyu is the name of Japanese beef cattle – wa means Japan and gyu means cow. While Kobe beef is the most well-known type of wagyu outside of Japan, there are actually many different kinds of Japanese beef and some of them are giving Kobe a run for its money.
Marbled fat content determines grade.
The most important characteristic of Japanese beef is the white parts of fat in the meat, known as sashi in Japanese. The sashi is interspersed between layers of red meat and gives the beef a marbled pattern. This marbling is the most prized aspect of Japanese beef and cattle farmers go to great lengths to create intense patterns that make the meat literally melt in your mouth. In fact, the beef grading systems in most countries are directly related to how much marbled fat is present.
In the US, prime beef must have 6-8% of marbled fat to qualify for the highest USDA grade. In order to achieve the highest quality grade for wagyu (A5), on the other hand, meat must be at least 25% marbled fat. While it may make the meat more tender and flavorful, high fat content is bad for you, right? Wrong.
Fat in Japanese beef is primarily monounsaturated, which is known to lower ‘bad’ cholesterol! Monounsaturated fats also have a very low melting point, making the beef literally melt in your mouth. An steak of top quality A5 grade wagyu can cost $500 or more in Tokyo’s fine dining scene.
Great care is taken to produce marbling and, apart from the being killed and eaten thing, cows in Japan live a king’s (or emperor’s) life. They are fed high quality grains and each farmer has their own blends and secret ingredients, such as soybeans and okara (a byproduct of making tofu). Water is also an important part in the cattle diet and local mineral water is often used to ensure the best quality product.
To keep their appetite going during the hot summer months, cows are fed beer or sake to give them, well, the munchies, which kind of makes you wonder how good the beef would taste if they started mixing pot leaves in the feed. The cows are raised in stalls to help create fatty marbling, so they are taken outside for leisurely walks in the afternoon to get some sun and fresh air.
Farmers will also spit sake on their cows and rub it in with a straw hand brush, which they say helps balance the distribution of marble content in addition to keeping the lice and ticks away. In order to ensure their cows stay as relaxed as possible, some breeders are rumored to even play soothing music for them. Beer, massages, afternoon strolls, mineral water, classical music…what a life!
Many people consider Matsuzaka beef to be the best in Japan.
Matsuzaka beef has some of the most expensive cuts and is considered by many enthusiasts to be the best kind of beef in Japan. Female cows raised in the quiet and serene area around Matsuzaka in Mie Prefecture are slaughtered before being bred, and this virgin meat is said to be the tenderest in the world. Known for its high fat content and characteristic marbling patterns that border on fine art, Matsuzaka beef has a rich, meaty flavor and begins to melt as soon as it enters your mouth.
This beef can be hard to find outside of big cities as only a limited number of the cows are slaughtered every year. Check for it in department stores and expect to pay around $50 for 100 grams ($500 per kilo; $225 per pound) for cuts of sirloin. If you live in Japan and want to order some Matsuzaka beef, this Japanese website sells various grades for up to 10,000 yen for 150 grams of A5.
That’s a lot of money for a little bit of beef. How much does the whole cow cost? A standard Matsuzaka will go for around $10,000 while the most expensive one was sold for $392,000 in 1989…holy cow!
Kobe beef is known for its intense marbling and rich flavor.
Kobe beef is what put wagyu on the map and, for many people around the world, is synonymous with Japanese beef. Kobe beef comes from cows raised, fed, and slaughtered in Hyogo Prefecture, where Kobe City is located. These cows require a marbling ratio of at least level 6, a Meat Quality Score of A or B, and a weight of under 470 kilograms. In order to be called Kobe beef, the meat must also come from Bullock or Virgin cows, ostensibly to keep the beef pure.
If you live in Japan and want to get some Kobe beef, Mitsukoshi department store sells 870 grams for 31,500 yen ($170 a pound). Or, you can order top quality A5 Kobe beef from this website (Japanese only).
When demand for Kobe beef shot through the roof, American ranchers began using the term ‘Kobe-style’ beef to refer to wagyu cattle raised in the US. While the price is much more affordable at $20 per pound for the cheapest Kobe-style beef and the quality is better than American Angus beef, it just doesn’t compare with the real thing.
In general, the cattle feed in the US is of lower quality than what is used in Japan and the individual care for cows is in the two countries varies significantly. Cattle farmers in Japan are known to treat their cows as members of the family and lavish them with amenities they might not have themselves – some farmers don’t even know how good their beef is because the thought of eating one of their pets makes them sick to the stomach.
Fukutsuru, a wagyu bull sent the American from Japan in the early 90’s, deserves a special word of mention. Known for his genetic tendency to produce high levels of marble content in offspring, Fukutsuru is in many ways the father of Kobe-style beef. He was bred countless times and his genes were considered so magical that prior to his death in 2005, over 100,000 sperm units were collected and put on ice for future generations.
Mishima beef is a very rare type of beef that comes from the small island of Mishima Island of the tip of southern Honshu. Unlike Kobe beef, which came from crossing Japanese cows with European breeds, Mishima cattle are pure-bred from the original strain introduced to Japan via Korea over 2,000 years ago. One reason local farmers have been able to prevent interbreeding is because of the isolated location of the island.
“Belly blocks” of Mishima beef go for a relatively reasonable 13,600 yen per kilo ($73 per pound), while 450 grams of sirloin steak will cost you 15,000 yen.
According to local legend, the Shogun was given Omi beef for medicinal purposes.
Omi beef is a less well-known but equally scrumptious type of wagyu that comes from Shiga Prefecture. Despite beef consumption being forbidden in Japan up until 140 years ago, rumor has it that the Shogun and some feudal lords (daimyo) would eat beef Omi beef, ostensibly because of its “medicinal purposes”. The fact that it tastes great surely had nothing to do with it.
Expect to pay about 8,500 yen ($90) for 180 grams of Omi beef sirloin ($250 per pound) – if you can even find it in the store, that is. Alternately, you can order it online from this Japanese website
A relative new-comer to the stage of high quality Japanese beef, Ishigaki beef comes from the southern island of Ishigaki in Okinawa Prefecture.
Ishigaki beef is sold all over Ishigaki Island and throughout Okinawa Prefecture. People in the mainland can order it online for about 15,000 yen per kilo here.
What’s your favorite kind of Japanese beef?
Photo of Omi beef taken by skasuga under CC license.
Photo of Kobe beef taken by goldfile under CC license.
Ishigaki beef photo taken by eightydaysjet under CC license.
Roger is a little obsessed with travel. He has been to over 40 countries, broken 3 suitcases and owned over 10 backpacks in 12 months. What he doesn't know about travel, ain't worth knowing!