The Japanese word “Wa” is a very interesting word. It is a Japanese cultural concept of harmony that reflect Japanese family values. Much of Japanese life revolves around this “wa” culture. Breaking it is a serious cultural offence. The kanji is written as 和. 和 (wa) is also a name for Japan/Japanese. The culture of wa is part of the identity of what it means to be Japanese. It is very un-Japanese to be un-wa. This is one word you often see in the names of a lot of Japanese restaurants and some other types of businesses.
Previously, the word Wasabi, was also written in Kanji as 和佐比, but the 比 was often mispronounced as “hi (hee)” instead of “bi (bee)”. Therefore, the word wasabi is often written in Hiragana instead of Kanji in today’s context. You might have seen restaurants using the words “Washoku” (和食), which means Japanese food. Once again, as mentioned, the “wa” is no longer just about Japan/Japanese but the essence of what it means to be Japanese. So “washoku” implies the importance of preparing quality Japanese dishes that reflect strong Japanese values through their dishes. Wagyu (和牛) pretty much means the same thing except that the focus, now, is on “gyu” (Beef/Cow).
The reason it is usually so expensive is because of the the effort that goes into breeding the cow for slaughter. A lot of resources are spent on providing the cattle with specifically tailored diets and giving the cattle a five-star life. Furthermore, they are not raised in mass quantities like normal cattle. On top of that, the Wa-culture of the Wa-people (Japanese people) ensures that the quality of the beef is worth every nickel, dime and penny for consumers.
Four Breeds of Wagyu Beef
Wagyu beef is actually Japanese beef in name but “wa” makes it even more important. It’s about the Japanese way of producing quality beef and also the way they raise the cows. Japanese beef (or Wagyu Beef) is mostly remembered by the regions they are shipped from – Matsusaka beef, Kobe beef, Yonezawa beef, Mishima beef, Omi beef, and Sanda beef. These are the top brands of beef from Japan but they are brands, not breeds. All breeds of modern Wagyu cattle were originally a cross-breed domestication of Japanese cattle and European cattle. After the cross-breeding process, all the Wagyu cattle were locally domesticated in Japan.
There are four breeds of Wagyu beef:
- Japanese Black Beef (黒毛和種 kuroge washu)
- Japanese Red Beef – sometimes known as Japanese Brown Beef (赤毛和種 akage washu)
- Japanese Polled Beef (無角和種 mukaku washu)
- Japanese Shorthorn (日本短角和種 Nihon Tankaku Washu)
The ones that are mostly consumed are the Black and Red beef. Black beef is developed mainly in the regions of Kansai (Kobe, Osaka, Kyoto etc.) and Chugoku (Yamaguchi, Okayama, Hiroshima etc.). Red beef is usually found in Kyushu and Shikoku. Polled beef is developed in Yamagushi of Southwest of Honshu, and the Shorthorn are commonly found in northern Honshu (Akita, Iwate, Aomori) and Hokkaido.
The places of breeding and the amount of work put in to the production process are not the only thing that makes Wagyu beef pricy. The final factor is in the grading. The grade is labelled by a letter and a number – A5, A4, B4 etc.
The letters A, B and C represent the Yield Grade. The yield grade refers to ratio proportion of meat obtained from a certain part of the cattle to the total weight of the carcass. The numbers 1-5 are represent the Quality Grade. The quality grade involves a few factors – marbling (flecks or thin strips of fat in beef aka intramuscular fat; the more the better), the color and brightness of the meat (I always emphasize this to my friends too), firmness and texture, and the color and brightness of the fat.
A – 72% and above (above standard)
B – 69-72% (standard)
C – Below 69% (below standard)
5 – Excellent
3 – Average
2- Below Average
1 – Poor
Know What You Are Ordering
The next time you order anything with Wagyu beef, especially in fine dining restaurants, know the grading first before you order. Otherwise, you might feel guilty for unnecessarily for spending that money on Wagyu beef that might not even have been A4 or A3. It could be a B5.
By the way, burger joints that sell Wagyu beef burgers are not 100% wagyu beef patty. May not even be 50%. Anyone who is a foodie and loves burgers know that some joints mix their beef patties with pork without telling you and the amount of normal beef and wagyu beef is split in proportion. How much fat is in the patty? Look at the amount of juice flowing out of the patty when you squeeze it.