You’ve probably heard of an elusive gold standard of beef that is so consistently marbled with tiny white spots of fat that it looks more pink than red. With a combination of unsaturated fats and oleic acid, it melts on your tongue with a taste much richer, more tender and more butter-like than other steak. If you’re thinking Japan’s Kobe beef, you’re partially right. That’s the cut that’s legendary, hard to find and often counterfeited. Don’t make yourself crazy. With a little knowledge, steak lovers can more easily partake of Japan’s meaty largesse through its many examples of hyperpremium beef, simply called wagyu (or Japanese cow).
Wagyu is classified similarly to wine. The four cattle breeds of Japan are analogous to grape varietals. And just as with wine, place of origin can identify Japanese beef, e.g. Sendai, Matsuzaka, Ohmi, Yonezawa, Hokkaido, Miyazaki and Kagoshima. Kobe is a specific example, raised only in one prefecture from a subtype of Japanese Black cattle. But just as Napa Valley cabernets are not the last word in California wine, Japan offers many other great examples of wagyu, some recently imported for the first time.
What they all have in common is a rich fattiness that can quickly overwhelm your taste buds. For that reason, a typical steak in Japan is just 3 to 4 ounces. Because it is illegal to import Japanese beef on the bone, the most common cuts are thin strips and ribeyes. Don’t have a teppanyaki griddle? Use a frying pan.Season with only salt and pepper. Quickly sear and serve rare. On the grill, wagyu may easily burst into flames.
Some canny ranchers have imported Japanese breeding stock to the United States where they raise 100 percent genetically pure Japanese cattle. But be careful: regulations are lax and some are selling hybrids. You won’t find Japanese beef at a supermarket. The widest selection in this country—by far—comes from the aptly named specialty e-tailer Holy Grail Steak Co. It has more than a dozen regional options as well as tasting “flight” packages. Chicago’s venerable Allen Brothers supplies many famous steakhouses and also ships several Japanese and fine domestic options. One standout domestic ranch that does mail order is Vermont Wagyu. For the best cuts, expect to pay from $5 an ounce for domestic and $15 and up for Japanese.