Wagyu beef is considered some of the finest meat in the world, but where did it originate?
True Wagyu beef originated in Japan thousands of years ago, given that Wagyu literally means ‘Japanese cattle’. However, mass consumption of the meat started occurring around 1868 in the country, and by the twentieth century, the rearing of the world’s finest beef was well underway.
Read on to learn more about Wagyu and the long legacy it boasts.
Bred For Brilliance
It’s said that the genetic legacy of Wagyu can be traced back some thirty-five thousand years. There were migrations and imports of various animals into Japan – particularly cattle – that led to the subsequent ‘creation’ of Japanese breeds.
However, there was originally little intention for cattle to be reared strictly for consumption. The initial use for strong and imposing cattle was out on the farms, using them as draft animals in agriculture.
There were several breeds used solely for their high levels of physical endurance and larger stature. As they gained popularity, some of the lesser breeds fell out of circulation, leaving the world with four dominant Japanese breeds of Wagyu today.
They’re the Black, Brown, Shorthorn, and Mukaku cows, all considered Wagyu but differing in appearance. They come primarily as a result of crossbreeding with ‘foreign’ cows, imported for the purpose of creating a stronger field of cattle.
Ban The Beef
As times change, so do the rules, laws, and regulations of life, and that’s especially true in Japan. Although Japan bred some of the world’s most impressive cattle, they simply didn’t consume it; they couldn’t consume it.
In the sixth century, Buddhism arrived in Japan, and along with it came a subsequent transition away from consuming meat. It reached a point where eating any meat – particularly beef – was intensely frowned upon.
If a person did consume beef, they’d need to seek penance, reportedly having to undertake a one-hundred day fast to pay for their sin.
The reasoning behind this was simple: Buddhism taught that humans were reincarnated into other beings, particularly animals. Therefore, it was a reasonable assumption that you could wind up consuming your own ancestors if you were to eat meat.
Reportedly, meat wasn’t a huge part of the Japanese diet before this Buddhist uprising, with fish and other seafood dominating the menu. However, as we’ve already explained, things change as time goes on.
In 1868, a new emperor assumed power in Japan – Emperor Meiji. After almost twelve-hundred years of abstinence from meat-eating, the Japanese government attempted to move towards the consumption of meat in earnest.
It took almost one hundred years for beef to become wildly popular throughout Japan, but it did happen, and Wagyu was truly born. The four unique breeds of Wagyu became subject to specific and mythical rearing processes, aimed at producing the prized and sought-after meat we know today.
What Is Wagyu
Wagyu beef is so highly desired owing to one real reason: the marbling of fat throughout the meat. It’s incredibly rare and produces such a fine and intense taste that it’s said to be more of an ‘experience’ than a simple meal.
While you can get ‘like-Wagyu’ meat in many countries around the world, true Wagyu can only come from Japan. There are farmers in Australia, the United Kingdom, and of course, the United States who have tried to replicate Japanese farming methods for decades.
The cost of true Wagyu can be staggering in some circles, with some of the highest-grade meat costing around two-hundred dollars per pound. There are special and prized Wagyu steaks that can run up a three-hundred dollar bill with ease.
It’s no secret that these cattle are seriously valuable, either. While a regular cow can be bought for around two thousand dollars, a Wagyu cattle can fetch around thirty-thousand dollars at auction.
In efforts to retain the value of Wagyu, Japan’s government has imposed an exportation ban on the DNA or live cattle for many years. There are instances of smugglers trying to sneak samples out of the country, but they’re met with hefty punishments.
Therefore, if you’re picking up a Wagyu dish in a steakhouse somewhere across the United States, it’s highly likely that you’re not eating true Wagyu. You might be eating beef with marvelous marbling, but it isn’t guaranteed to be from Japan.
Perhaps you should ask the chef before you part ways with three-hundred dollars for that steak.