“I still remember the first time I ate Wagyu,” says Chase Kojima of Sydney’s Sokyo restaurant. “It was like I was eating beef for the first time. That first bite; the juice just exploding out of the meat … It was intense. It was so good.”
Wagyu (wa means Japanese and gyu means cow) is a breed of Japanese cattle. In Japan the blood of Wagyu is so pure the lineage and ancestry of each animal can be traced for generations. Wagyu is often given an origin name, too: the most famous of all, Kobe, is only true Kobe if it’s from that region in Japan.
In the late ’90s the Japanese government wanted to protect that purity and so banned the export of Wagyu. Fortunately for us, some Australian farmers imported cattle from Japan while they still could. But what is it about Wagyu? What makes this beef so special, and why is its bloodline so protected?
The answer is fat. Wagyu cattle is prized for its ability to fatten. The intramuscular fat, or marbling, that it develops gives Wagyu beef a taste and texture incomparable to that of regular beef – juicier, richer and more tender. In Australia, beef is scored on a scale of zero to nine, with zero being no visible intramuscular fat, and nine being roughly 50 per cent fat to meat. Wagyu is rarely less than three or four; full-blood Wagyu is usually closer to nine.
It’s also expensive, for two main reasons. Australia is home to the biggest Wagyu herd outside of Japan, but much of our Wagyu is cross-bred. It takes a careful – and costly – breeding program to produce full-blood calves. Wagyu cows are also raised until they’re about three years old – almost three times as old as regular cattle – because they need time to develop the fat.
Gary McBean, butcher at Gary’s Quality Meats in Melbourne’s Prahran Market, sells Wagyu from all over the country: Robbins Island in Tasmania, Sevens Creek in central Victoria, and Master Kobe from Queensland. He says Wagyu that has been cross-bred with Angus or Hereford cows can still be delicious, although it should be considerably cheaper. Full-blood Wagyu, though, is worth the extra cost.
“There’s nothing like full-blood Wagyu, it has such a special, unique flavour,” says McBean. “It’s so amazingly tender, but really full and rich. I love that richness. I think it’s the best flavoured beef I’ve ever tasted.”
Because of its high fat content there are many different ways to cook Wagyu. On the menu at Sokyo, Kojima has it four ways. The first is David Blackmore nine-score wagyu short rib, cooked super slow and low, then seared, thinly sliced and served as tataki with pickled grapes, chestnut puree, tarragon, chilli oil and vinegar. “The texture is just melt-in-your-mouth,” he says.
Offcuts from the short rib are seared and put into sushi rolls, with umami shitake sauce and cucumber. There’s also a Rangers Valley Wagyu steak, grilled over Japanese charcoal; and Wagyu tri-tip skewers with teriyaki sauce.
When it comes to cooking Wagyu, Kojima says it depends on the marble score. “If you are using a very high-marbled Wagyu, you have to cook it a little bit longer to render the fat, otherwise it might taste very fatty in your mouth, or stay chewy.” Its high fat content means it’s hard to overcook, though.
Where to try Wagyu in your city:
Sake Restaurant & Bar