Foodies worldwide are singing the praises of Japan’s wagyu beef. Its rich flavour and silky texture are achieved through rigorous breeding practices.
Pictured is the winner of the Matsuzaka wagyu competition, also known as the “Wagyu Olympics.” This beef is serious business, with the quality of the meat coming all the way down to the breeding. Wagyu breeders compete in categories such as most fertile cow, best bull and best beef cattle.
Japan’s famous wagyu beef graces the tables of high-end restaurants the world over. Though “wagyu” literally means “Japanese beef,” the term specifically refers to a superior quality of beef best known for its umami, or savoury flavour, and its soft, velvety texture, the result of generous fat marbling due to meticulous breeding. Kobe beef, Matsuzaka beef and Yonezawa beef all fall under the “wagyu” umbrella.
There are only four breeds of cattle that yield certified wagyu beef. The first is the Japanese Black, or Kuroge Washu. It’s by far the most common breed, and if you’re eating wagyu beef, it’s a good bet it’s of the Japanese Black variety. These cows have the highest fat content and make for beef that’s almost airy in texture, seeming to melt on the tongue.
The Japanese Brown, also referred to as the Japanese Red or Akaushi, is leaner, leading to a firmer texture. Because of the low fat content it’s considered healthier, but that in no way detracts from its taste.
While in general Japanese Brown and Black cattle can be bred outside of Japan, the Shorthorn or Nihon Tankaku Shu stays native to the country. It also yields a leaner beef which has a more subtle flavour.
The last breed is the Japanese Polled or Mukaku Washu. The high level of amino acids give this beef a bold and meaty flavour. Like the Shorthorn, the Japanese Polled can only be found in Japan, and there are only hundreds of these cattle in existence.
Although wagyu is now bred the world over, there are strict criteria that need to be met before beef can officially be considered wagyu. First and foremost, the beef must come from one of the four breeds above, or a crossbreed among the four. The cattle must also be registered with the National Livestock Breeding Centre. In order to be accurately registered and traced, the cattle must be born and bred in Japan.
Though Kobe is most famous for wagyu beef (it’s even said NBA all-star Kobe Bryant is named for Kobe beef), wagyu is bred all over Japan. Yonezawa, Matsuzaka, Maezawa, Omi and Hida are also known as centres of wagyu beef production.
Japanese Black cattle are the most common wagyu breed. They’re known for the velvety, fatty texture that’s quintessential to wagyu.
So although wagyu cattle are bred in the U.S., Australia and right here in Canada, premium wagyu still tends to be imported from Japan.
On top of the tight regulations set for breeding cattle, the beef is also subject to a grading system. The first half of the system is based on the yield grade (the ratio of meat to total weight of the carcass) and is given a score of A, B or C, with A being the highest and C being the lowest.
The second half of the system scores meat on factors such as its colouring, fat marbling and firmness. This grade ranges from 5 to 1, with 5 being the highest and 1 the lowest. So A5 wagyu beef would be the cream of the crop.
A number of rumours surround wagyu beef and world-renowned Kobe beef in particular. According to a 2010 article in The Japan Times, claims that Kobe beef cattle are commonly fed beer or are massaged are false. And while wagyu beef is often exported outside Japan, Kobe beef rarely is. Any “Kobe” beef found in restaurants internationally is most likely Kobe-style beef, which is usually from a crossbreed of wagyu and Angus cattle.
Kobe beef comes exclusively from Tajima cows, which are a type of Japanese Black raised in Hyogo Prefecture. The cows are fed a special diet to ensure their beef is of exceptional quality. Therefore to be officially classified as Kobe beef, the meat must come from Tajima cows bred and slaughtered in the Hyogo Prefecture of Japan. It must also have a yield grade of at least B and a meat quality score of 4 to 5. Finally, the beef should carry the official seal certifying it as Kobe beef.
With its unrivalled flavour and a buttery-soft texture second to none, it’s no wonder that wagyu is one of the most popular delicacies around.
How to eat wagyu
Due to meticulous breeding, wagyu’s natural flavour is more than enough on its own. It’s best to not get complicated with seasonings so as to enjoy the beef’s full effect.
Yakiniku, which literally means “fried meat,” is popular in restaurants all over Japan. Diners cook their meat on a grill set right into the table, and subtle sides like rice and vegetables make the perfect accompaniment to wagyu, allowing the meat to take centre stage. It’s a fun and inexpensive way to try wagyu, but be careful when cooking not to let your wagyu burn. Nothing is quite as disappointing as wagyu gone wrong.
Shabu-shabu, also known as hot pot, involves boiling meat and vegetables in a light broth. It’s especially popular in winter—a steamy pot of shabu-shabu is the perfect way to warm up. To cook wagyu shabu-shabu-style simply dip thin strips of beef into the broth, letting the heat of the pot cook the meat while it absorbs the subtle flavour of the soup. Shabu-shabu meat is sliced thinly, so it’s not necessary to dip it in for long.
Sukiyaki is another type of hot pot similar to shabu-shabu, but the flavour is sweeter due to the use of sugar and mirin (a rice-wine condiment) in the broth. As well, instead of dipping sauces, after cooking the meat it is dipped into raw egg. The mild sweetness of sukiyaki is a wonderful complement to the rich and velvety texture of wagyu. The mix of meatiness and sweetness creates a wonderful savour.
Nigiri sushi is strips of raw or lightly seared meat placed on top of rice. While wagyu nigiri isn’t as common as the other methods of wagyu preparation, it’s a great way to experience the unaltered taste and texture of the meat. Due to concerns of contamination when it comes to meat sushi as opposed to fish sushi, usually only the highest grades of wagyu are used for wagyu nigiri.
Because wagyu is so fatty and soft, it’s recommended to cook it a bit longer than other steaks, otherwise all that concentrated buttery richness can be overwhelming. Medium rare to medium is the sweet spot that will give the perfect texture and bring out the meaty, umami fullness of the beef. There are a number of top-quality restaurants in Canada that offer wagyu steak, both from domestic wagyu cattle and beef that has been imported from Japan.
The butcher – FãMu NATURAL MEATS
Looking to get your hands on some wagyu? Look no further than FãMu, a butcher located in Markham’s J-town. FãMu is a play on the Japanese pronunciation for the word “farm.” This is the place to go if you’re looking for premium wagyu imported from Japan— even authentic Kobe beef! However FãMu also carries international wagyu, including beef raised right in Ontario. FãMu also boasts dry-aged wagyu. Dry-aging results in more tender meat with a concentrated flavour. FãMu prides itself on sourcing free-range meat raised without antibiotics and chemicals. It offers the largest selection of wagyu beef in the country, and is the only butcher in Ontario licensed to sell wagyu beef sourced from purebred wagyu cows in Japan.
Unit 8, 3160 Steeles Ave. E., Markham (in the J-Town plaza) • 905-475-5005 • www.famu.ca
Where to eat wagyu
Now that we’ve got your tastebuds tingling, here’s where you can go to try delicious wagyu in and around Toronto.
At Zakkushi the cosy, friendly atmosphere of an authentic Japanese izakaya has been recreated in loving detail. Zakkushi’s claim to fame is its grilled skewers: over 30 different varieties of meat, seafood and veggie skewers grilled to perfection on Japanese “binchotan” charcoal.
The wagyu beef, teriyaki wagyu and wagyu meatball skewers offer a chance to try wagyu at an a ordable price.
193 Carlton St., Toronto • 647-352-9455 • www. zakkushi.com/carlton
Located in Richmond Hill, Goen strives to offer an authentic Japanese yakiniku experience. Its menu of Japanese yakiniku favourites includes fresh shrimp, vegetables and, of course, wagyu beef. Choose from American, Australian and Japanese wagyu.
328 Hwy. 7 E., Unit 8, Rich- mond Hill • 647-978-8559
Located in Markham, in the affectionately termed “J- town,” this popular izakaya restaurant boasts an impressive and expansive menu. If you’re looking for the beef, try the beef sashimi served with ponzu sauce.
3160 Steeles Ave. E., Markham • 905-474-1058
Jacobs & Co. Steakhouse
A celebrated steakhouse o ering a variety of wagyu steaks. Diners are spoiled for choice with premium wagyu steaks from Canada, the U.S., Australia and, of course, Japan. Most notable is the A5 Kobe beef ribeye imported from Hyogo Prefecture.
12 Brant St., Toronto • 416-366-0200 • www. jacobssteakhouse.com
A trendy Japanese restaurant and lounge located in Toronto’s upscale Yorkville area. Its modern menu features wagyu beef steamed buns and wagyu fried rice. Also of note is the A5 wagyu steak brought out sizzling on a hot stone. Come for the beef and stay for the gorgeous ambience.
115 Yorkville Ave., Toronto • 647-348-7000 • www. kasamoto.ca
Fine Japanese dining located in the elegant Westin Prince Hotel. Chefs dazzle and delight with their teppanyaki-style cooking right at the table. For a premium wagyu experience, order the A4 wagyu sirloin cooked teppanyaki style.
900 York Mills Rd., Toronto (Westin Prince Hotel) • 647- 259-3230 • www.katsura restaurant.com
Miku proudly states its philosophy as Ningenmi— the concept of finding joy in life by bringing joy to others. What could be more enjoyable than a mouthful of meaty and delicious wagyu nigiri sushi?
105-10 Bay St. (at Queen’s Quay), Toronto • 647-347- 7347 • mikutoronto.com
Put your trust in the chef at Shousin with the omakase selections. Saying “omakase” to the chef is tantamount to saying “surprise me.” Shousin’s kiku omakase selection includes wagyu beef prepared expertly by the chef, sure to surprise and delight.
3328 Yonge St., Toronto • 416-488-9400 • www. shoushin.ca
Zen Japanese Restaurant
Zen offers up certified A5 Hida wagyu raised in Japan’s Gifu Prefecture. Hida beef features the silky marbling characteristic of Japanese Black cattle wagyu, but it is additionally bred and fattened for at least 14 months. At Zen you can choose to enjoy wagyu as steak, shabu-shabu or sukiyaki.
7634 Woodbine Ave., Markham • 905-604-7211 • zenjapaneserestaurant. com