First of all what does Wagyu mean? The word itself means Japanese cow and it is actually the name given to cattle breeds developed in Japan. There are four breeds of Japanese cattle called wagyu, but the Kuroge-washu or Japanese Black breed stands apart for their genetic predisposition to create finely grained marbling.
Beef eating is only a fairly recent development in Japan. When Buddhism became established it was actually forbidden to kill by law so that cows were only bred as farm animals. Later on, around 1868, Christian missions arrived and foreigners whose demand for beef increased. Japan began to hybridize native cattle with imported ones. Ayrshire from Britain, Holstein from Germany and Simmental from Switzerland. After repeated efforts to increase the size and grade of the animals, the Japanese Black cattle was officially certified in 1948.
Japan has an export ban on cattle so understandably there aren’t a lot of Kuroge-washu cattle outside Japan. Breeding programs outside Japan are carefully tracked and cattle are registered to confirm authenticity. Fullblood wagyu are 100% traceable to Japanese herds. In other words every animal is the offspring of a bull and cow whose ancestors originate from Japan.
Purebred wagyu on the other hand, contains more than 93.75% pure Japanese wagyu genetics. These cattle result from a fullblood bull and crossbred cow.
So what does this 7% difference spell? Apparently quite a lot of wagyu afficionados. The closer to 100% Kuroge-washu the more you will taste the sweet umami flavors associated with the breed. In contrast, beef from crossbred wagyu-Angus varieties never have that umami kick.
It isn’t only a matter of taste however. People are drawn to wagyu for health reasons. Beef is an important source of protein, necessary for maintaining the elasticity in blood vessels and preventing cardiovascular disease. High quality Japanese beef contains all the essential amino acids and has a 97% beef to protein absorption rate. The fat in wagyu cattle is healthier, more like olive oil. Research on Kuroge-washu cattle at Texas A&M University showed that wagyu beef contains increased levels of monounsaturated fatty acids, full of omega 3s and high levels of oleic acids that can lower LDL cholesterol and increase HDL cholesterol.
It isn’t only ancestry and breeding that is responsible for the high level of marbling. Very careful nutrition management is essential also. Every prefecture in Japan has a standardized recommended system for fattening.
There is also a special Wagyu grading system in Japan. The Japanese Meat Grading Association set up in 1988, has qualified meat graders who study the color and brightness of the meat, the hardness and texture, the gloss and the quality of the fat. The meat is then rated accordingly!!
So, it’s not just a fancy name after all. Wagyu is an exceptional meat, surpassing all others by the way it is raised, produced and processed.