In the first of two articles, FOOD AND WINE contributor Mei Chin explores the appeal of Wagyu, which has been described as the foie gras of beef.
You don’t chew Wagyu, you slide into it. It is quite like silk, with shades of foie-gras and roasted marrow. Recently, I tasted various cuts of Japanese Wagyu beef, including the chuck, one of the more affordable bits of the steer. Panfry most chuck medium rare, it would be gnawing on elastic bands. Wagyu chuck, however, manages to melt. For this reason, there are those who claim that Wagyu is the best beef in the world. Only this month is Japanese Wagyu available in Ireland. It comes with a ten-digit serial number that allows you to trace your steak back to his great grandparents.
“Wa” is Japan, and “gyu” means cattle. Wagyu includes a number of breeds, the most famous of which is Kobe. (The Japanese Wagyu available in Ireland is from the Gunma Prefecture, and very superb.) The pampered lifestyle of these Japanese animals is legendary. According to Jean-Yves Teo, who works for Zen-Noh, the company responsible for importing Japanese Wagyu to Ireland and the UK, “I’ve seen these farmers with their cattle. Some love them more than their children.” Wagyu are the languid Rubensque courtesans of beef, getting plump on beer-soaked grain, their generous curves massaged with sake.
READ MORE: Wagyu Beef Burger
Wagyu cattle have been in Japan since the 5th century, but no one ate them. Until the later half of the 19th century, the Japanese observed Buddhist dietary practices, which meant they ate vegetables and fish. Wagyu cattle were kept as animals of labour.
In 1853, the American Commodore Perry sailed into Edo (now Tokyo) and brought with him, among other things, Western eating habits. The shock for the Japanese first seeing “meat” is encapsulated in James Clavell’s novel Shogun. “A mutilated haunch of roast beef, blood rare, half the carcass of a spitted chicken, torn bread and cheese and spilled beer.”
The Japanese believed that they needed to adopt the habits of their Western oppressors, in order to resist them. This meant learning Western science, drinking milk, and eating beef, even though the concept was initially repellant.
East Asian and Western attitudes about beef differ. The New York restauranteur Ed Schoenfeld (Chinatown Brasserie, Decoy Duck, and RedFarm) explained that Westerners tend to prize heft, chew, and a general beefiness. Asians, on the other hand, want to take that beefiness out, which they do by marinating the meat in papaya, baking soda, and ginger ale.
I am East Asian in my palate; this is why Japanese Wagyu thrills me. The Japanese have exquisitely engineered out all beefy traces. Proper Japanese Wagyu has the meat taken out of it, the same way that foie tastes of hazelnuts and cream but nothing of liver.
The Japanese Wagyu that I have seen is not red, like most steak, but a delicate rose-blush, with the fat evenly marbled throughout. The Japanese Wagyu cattle are kept on a grain-based diet, because the vitamin A in grass inhibits this precious marbling. Wagyu is purportedly high in oleic acid, aka the good fat that is also in olive oil. Japanese Wagyu comes from the same culture that spawns sumo wrestlers, athletes whose massive girths are rigorously cultivated with a diet of rice, fish, and beer.
Like sumo wrestlers and foie gras, which is produced by force-feeding geese enormous amounts of corn, there is nothing natural about the Japanese Wagyu. It is central to Wagyu’s savour.
To cook Japanese Wagyu is daunting, in part because of the price. It retails in Dublin’s Asia Market for €50 euros for 200 grams. (At Asia Market, the packaging is deceiving, because the beef looks like the thin strips that one uses for nabe, or hotpot, but actually, it is a 200 gram steak.) Years ago, I was a fact checker for the food writer Jeffrey Steingarten, who wasted many hundreds of dollars trying to cook a perfect Wagyu.
The butcher Pat Whelan says, “In Japan, you eat meat by the gram. In this country you eat it by the kilo.” Japanese wagyu is like velvet and diamonds. If you ate half a kilo, you would die.
Dylan McGrath currently has Japanese Wagyu in his restaurants Shelbourne Social and Taste at Bonsai, but I prefer to relish this kind of luxury in the privacy of my own home. Some things are best indulged with no one watching.
Recently, I was lucky enough to watch a master butcher, Tomohiro Tanaka, cut down a shoulder of Wagyu to demonstrate its different properties. My takeaway? The best way to treat your €50 worth of steak is to let it relax at room temperature. The melting point of Wagyu fat is 17°, as opposed to ordinary beef fat, which melts at 70°. Dust it with salt and pepper. You can rub a bit of fat in the pan if you want. Then flash fry the steak, which is not thick, for about a minute and a half per side. Pair it with a perfect baked potato.
You might be enticed by the Wagyu burger, which ducks in and out of fashion; however, a pure Wagyu burger is a waste because it turns to mush. What you want is a burger made of great Irish beef and Wagyu fat. In Japan, grocery stores have wrapped packages of Wagyu fat that are free for all customers. Wagyu fat also makes creamy fried rice and ethereal dumpling fillings.
However, my current favourite way to Wagyu is to thinly slice it against the grain and steam it for two minutes on a bed of cabbage and wild mushrooms. Swirl the meat and cabbage in soy sauce and yuzu vinegar. You can’t do this with any steak, only with Wagyu, which is just as much butter as it is beef. Devour.
Where to buy Wagyu: Asia Market, 18 Drury Street, Dublin 2 and Merrywell Business Park, Ballymount Rd Lower, Dublin 12.
Author: Mei Chin
Mei is from New York and Connecticut. She has written for Saveur, Lucky Peach,
New York Times, Irish Times, the Sunday Times, Gourmet, Fiction, Bomb, and is the
recipient of the James Beard MFK Fisher and two IACP Bert Greene awards. She is
currently collaborating with editor and writer Georgia Freedman on a new
magazine, Ampersand: Eating at the Cultural Crossroads. Now based in Dublin, Mei
spends much of her time obsessing about Caesar salads, tacos, and martinis. Follow Mei on Twitter and Instagram.