How do you feel about marbling? Does rich, tender beef make your taste buds stand at attention? The answer is probably “yes” if you have read this far. But is Wagyu beef worth the high cost? Let’s tucker into a meaty discussion and see where it takes us. If you suffer from high cholesterol or have gout, you may want to pop an extra pill right now. It’s going to be a decadent ride filled with temptation.
Strictly speaking, “wagyu” simply means “Japanese beef.” However, for non-Japanese, “wagyu” means more than just beef from Japan. It means rich, well-marbled beef. For Japanese as well there’s an expectation that wagyu will be high end, but technically speaking, there is low grade “wagyu”. In truth, much of the cheaper beef in Japan is imported from Australia or the United States.
Before we get to the numbers and determine if whether Wagyu beef is worth the high cost, let’s talk options. Wagyu beef can be enjoyed in at least three deliciously different ways: thinly sliced for sukiyaki or shabu shabu, cut into bite-sized pieces for yakiniku, or as a traditional steak.
Have it Sliced Thin for Sukiyaki or Shabu Shabu
Sukiyaki and shabu shabu both involve a “hot pot” type apparatus, but they are quite different in flavor. To make it more complicated, sukiyaki styles vary depending on which part of Japan you are in. Regardless, all varieties of sukiyaki and shabu shabu involve thinly sliced beef and an assortment of vegetables. But we’re not here to talk about vegetables.
Sukiyaki tends to be a sweeter broth with dominant soy sauce flavors. In Osaka, a tiny amount of the concentrated soup is put in the hot pot first, then one slice of the wagyu is quickly cooked in it. Cooking the meat only takes a matter of seconds because it is sliced so thinly. Remember: The cardinal sin is to overcook wagyu! After that first meat (and from the very beginning for non-Osaka/Kobe people), soup is heated in the hot pot. From there, you’re ready to put the remaining meat and then the other ingredients in.
Whereas sukiyaki is a sweeter, more concentrated broth (almost more of a sauce), shabu shabu tends to be more savory, and more traditionally soup-like. Things simmer longer with shabu shabu, and there is no raw egg dip as is the case with sukiyaki. However, both of these dishes use the same thinly sliced wagyu.
Bite-Sized Beef for Yakiniku
Wagyu beef may worth the high cost, but one way to trim costs a bit is to have some high end beef and some cheaper cuts. A yakiniku dinner makes this easy to accomplish. After ordering, trays of various raw beef appear at your table. The staff has kindly cut the meat into moderately thin, often rectangular, bite-sized pieces. The picture at the top of this article shows a typical yakiniku cut.
As the eater, your responsibility is to cook your own meat, tableside. Ideally, this will be over a charcoal grill. Filet cuts (as pictured above) are always popular, but just about every other part of the cow is available for consumption at a proper yakiniku restaurant. This means heart, stomach lining, tongue, and more. Let your imagination wander.
Depending on which animal part you are eating, a quick dip in a slightly sweet, soy based sauce or a lemon-salt sauce will serve to enhance the experience. Also depending on what cut you are eating, a little green onion or garlic may provide a welcome flavor bump. With all those small plates of raw meat, the meal can get quite pricey, so do be careful. Hint: Virtually all “all you can eat yakiniku” restaurants in Japan use imported beef.
Nothing Like a Hunk of Beef
This is the part of the story where the steak really hits the table. If you’re willing to splash out somewhere in the US$100 leagues per person, things can get pretty serious. For US$200 they can get glutinous. Just sayin’, it’s your vacation. Most wagyu steak restaurants in Japan serve their amazing beef as part of a set menu with some fluffy and starchy things to augment the 100g or 120g (3.5 – 4.2 oz.) of beef that comes standard. Because, if we’re being honest, that’s not all that big a serving. On the one hand, it’s rich beef, so you probably shouldn’t eat too much of it. On the other hand, gluttony.
Most of the high end restaurants will cook the beef (among other dishes) right in front of you. This griddle is a “teppan” in Japanese, and “teppanyaki” means “things grilled on the teppan.” This experience has a whiff of what you might be familiar with from Benihana. Except that the show is less comedic and more beefy-spiritual, and the quality of the meat is… well, it’s worlds apart.
A Foodie Night Tour with Wagyu?
We here at Pinpoint Traveler just love showing people the best of Japan. Our Kyoto night tour and Osaka night tour have a particularly appetizing option, pictured above. If you’re not keen to spend the money or make a full night out of wagyu, we offer a 100g add-on for only around US$25. We make no money off it. That’s how much we want to share wagyu happiness with you!
And So the Value Train Pulls into the Station. Is wagyu beef worth the high cost?
We’ve mooooved around the issue quite a bit, but now it’s time to answer the question. Is Wagyu beef worth the high cost? If you buy high end wagyu to cook at home in Japan, you’re generally looking at around 1000 to 2000 yen per 100g. That works out to roughly US$42-$84 per pound, or around $93/kg to $186/kg. For a proper restaurant experience, however, you’re looking at much more. Basically, thinking you will have a night out with an appreciable amount of high end wagyu for less than US$100/person is folly.
For most Japanese, the idea of eating 200g or more of well-marbled wagyu is daunting. And possibly health-threatening, as it really is quite rich. For this reason, along with the high cost, most people in Japan eat somewhere around 100g or so, and then fill their stomachs with other tasty, less rich options. This could be vegetables, rice, or even leaner meats.
Have you decided if wagyu is worth it? As a special treat, it probably is. And if you’re coming all the way to Japan, wouldn’t it be a shame to not try it?