There can be few better ways to understand the world of wagyu, Japan’s famously high-end and expensive beef, than spending a week in Kobe and Tokyo with the founder of cult Kobe wagyu beef brand, Wagyumafia.
Hisato Hamada serves the Instagram-friendly $185 Chateaubriand sandwich to diners including David Beckham, Ed Sheeran and Jack Dorsey in his five restaurants in Tokyo and Hong Kong as well as at US pop-ups from New York to Vegas. He regularly pays upwards of $60,000 for just one prize-winning cow and travels the world spreading the word of Japanese wagyu, all of which makes him the best guide going to help debunk myths and reveal what you need to know about this sensational and exclusive meat.
Myth 1: Wagyu Is Synonymous with High Quality
Not all wagyu is created equally. Hamada explains that wagyu translates simply as “Japanese cattle,” meaning that it covers a considerable range of beef under four official breeds. Amongst them, by far the most popular is the Japanese Black which represents around 90% of the country’s cattle. From this 90%, only around 4,000 to 5,000 of them annually make the official grade as Kobe beef. That rarity is what makes the very best wagyu so pricey.
Japan’s Meat Grading Association grades each wagyu carcass based on its yield from A thru C as well as its marbling, color, firmness and quality from 1 to 5, making A5 the highest possible score. Some countries, however, breed their own non pure-blood wagyu, at varying degrees of authenticity and quality. American wagyu, while delicious, since it is usually cross-bred with angus cattle, it will produce a different marbling pattern, as you can see in the picture above, where the American wagyu on top isn’t as rich as the A5 wagyu on the bottom. And if you see ‘wagyu meatballs’ on a menu, for example, you can be highly confident that it’s not the luxury version you normally associate with the term.
Myth 2: Wagyu’s Fat Content Is Worryingly High
Not so. Scarce grazing space in Japan means that most wagyu cattle are raised in barns, with the resulting lack of extensive exercise aiding in the formation of marbled fat. While it’s true that the highest-grade USDA prime runs around 8 percent marbled fat and the finest wagyu up to a remarkable 25 percent, it’s all about the type of fat, as well as the size of your steak.
Given the richness, in Japan your steak would rarely if ever run more than around 4 ounces, which is maybe just as well given it can easily run $800 per pound. Also, those stunning white marble streaks that give waygu its unique pastel-pinkish hue contain largely monounsaturated fat with oleic acid, which has been shown in studies that it may reduce risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease. So yes, enjoy in the knowledge that your supremely pricy steak may even be helping to lower your LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol.
Myth 3: Wagyu Cattle Are Massaged, Fed Beer and Played Classical Music
Pretty much all bull. In a visit with Hamada to a farm north of Kobe who supplies Wagyumafia and other high-end outlets with his prize-winning cattle, I asked the very same question to a farmer. His response?
“I love my animals and take real care of them, I raise them to two and a half years. I also give them all names because herds on farms here are rarely larger than 150 cows. But do I massage them? No. If I did, I wouldn’t have time to do anything else! Also no one feeds beer to their animals, as far as I know. Some competition level cows are treated differently, for example we may use expensive shampoo to make their coats even shinier, but that’s it. And no music.”
Myth 4: The Best Wagyu Should Only Be Served as Steaks
While in the US this is invariably the case, given the scarcity and price point, in Japan they serve high-end Kobe wagyu in multiple ways. The latest Wagyumafia yakiniku restaurant lets you grill your own, while another serves its famed wagyu katsu sandwich ($185 Chateaubriand cuts on toasted milk bread with their special sauce that’s made from 20-year aged Kamebishi soy sauce and Fuji vinegar). It doesn’t stop there. There’s Kobe jerky, beef noodle soup and tartare too.
Hamada also often collaborates with fellow chefs in pop-ups around the world or at the recent Kobe Beef Summit held in Tokyo, where five chefs including Richard Ekkebus from Hong Kong’s Amber restaurant, Tomos Parry from London’s Brat (our recent choice for best new restaurant in Europe) and Richie Lin from Mume in Taiwan all riffed on Kobe wagyu. Dishes by other summit chefs included wagyu shank served by Jordy Navarra from Manila’s Toyo Eatery in a Filipino kare-kare style stew, or Paul Carmichael from Momofuku Seibo in Sydney with his very special jerk Chateaubriand sandwich.
Myth #5: Wagyu Has Been a Delicacy Enjoyed for Centuries
Surprisingly, no. Largely due to Japan’s Buddhist traditions, it was almost unheard of to eat beef for centuries during the feudal era known as the Edo Period. The comparatively small but very sturdy wagyu cattle were originally raised as draught animals to assist in ploughing fields and the eventual cultivation of rice.
During the Edo Period the country was also almost entirely cut off from the rest of the world, isolation which later ensured the purity of their cattle, especially so in mountainous Hyogo Prefecture, today the home of the best Kobe beef. People in Japan really only started eating beef from around 1880 onwards.
Fact: Kobe Bryant Is Named After a Cow
As for one wagyu myth that is actually true? Kobe Bryant, who prefers to be referred to as a black mamba snake, is indeed named after Kobe beef. His father saw it on a menu in a Japanese restaurant, and the rest is history.