Picture a verdant field dotted with cows, the blissful bovines drinking champagne while being massaged to a soundtrack of soothing classical music. It’s not a clip from a Pixar film about hedonistic farm animals – it’s a cheeky reference to the status of Japanese Wagyu, cattle so pure the lineage and ancestry of each animal can be traced for generations. And now, for the first time in 17 years, you can get Japanese full-blood Wagyu beef in Australia.
This style of Wagyu (“wa” means Japanese and “gyu” means cow) sits alongside caviar, truffle and foie gras as a luxury food shrouded in reverent mystique. Even in Japan, a country where food culture is celebrated for its intricacy and tradition-driven complexity, Japanese Wagyu stands out as remarkable.
Prized for its heavy marbling of fat, which imparts a rich, sweet flavour and creates a texture unlike any other beef, Japanese Wagyu was blocked from import into Australia (alongside all other foreign beef imports) during the mad cow disease crisis of the early 2000s.
In June 2018 the government lifted the ban, and the meat has begun to appear on restaurant menus and the shelves of meat wholesalers.
Of course, Australians have been enjoying Wagyu-labelled beef for years, but writer, presenter and Goodwill Ambassador for Japanese Cuisine Adam Liaw says there’s a big difference between the premium product now being brought into Australia, and the beef ubiquitous on our pub menus.
“Wagyu in Australia is not really a controlled term. Here you can have cross-bred cattle producing Wagyu meat, which means you’re definitely not getting full-blood Wagyu meat in your $12 Wagyu burgers.”
While locally produced full-blood Wagyu has long been available from specialised local producers like David Blackmore, Liaw believes the arrival of imported product to our professional and home kitchens does nothing to undermine the Australian offering.
“We have very high quality sparkling wines in Australia, but there’s also wine from Champagne. We have high quality cheeses in Australia, but there are extraordinary French and Swiss cheeses that we bring into the country. This is the same thing, but with beef.”
Limited to 500,000 heads of cattle per year, the production of full-blood Japanese Wagyu is heavily controlled by Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, with an individual identification number tracing each animal’s journey from birth to slaughter.
Prior to being butchered into individual cuts, beef is graded A, B or C based on the yield of the individual animal, and rated one to five based on the colour of the meat, the colour of the fat and the density of marbling. A5 is the highest possible grade.
“Heavily marbled meat is a trademark of Japanese farmers,” Liaw says. “They’ve been the best in the world at it since people started doing it, for a very long time. Most other beef-producing nations have never even come close.”
As for how to make the most of this premium ingredient in the kitchen, Mr Wong executive chef Dan Hong, whose recent experiments with Japanese Wagyu have featured regularly in his Instagram stories, believes moderation is key.
“It’s super rich and melts in the mouth so it’s best to eat in small quantities,” he says. “Thinly sliced and served shabu shabu style (boiled in water) or in sukiyaki (slowly cooked or simmered at the table). Cooked over charcoal as a thin steak is also good; yakiniku style.
“You only need to eat a couple slices, so one portion between four people as part of a meal is enough.”
Adam Liaw agrees.
“I like it about 1.7 millimetres thick so you can get some of the meat texture to it, done in something like sukiyaki or shabu shabu. The things you just can’t do with less marbled meat. When it’s less marbled, if it’s not paper-thin and you’re putting it into a pho or shabu shabu it’s going to toughen.
“Oh,” he adds, “or covering the top of a pho. That’s hot shit to me.”
Where to get Japanese full-blood Wagyu
Osawa Enterprises, 6B 1-21 Madeline Street, Strathfield South
Vic’s Premium Quality Meat, which has wholesale services in Sydney and Melbourne, has supplied Japanese Wagyu to the likes of Sokyo, Black Bar & Grill and Otto. It’s often a limited special, so call those restaurants in advance to find out if it’s on the menu.
This article was updated on April 12, 2019.