In the 1992 sports comedy movie "Mr. Baseball," Tom Selleck plays aging professional baseball player Jack Elliot, who finds himself traded to a Japanese team. His guide through the cultural maze he enters is a PR agent who is also the daughter of Selleck’s team manager. She takes him to a restaurant renowned for its wagyu beef and Selleck scoffs, loudly announcing that he’s eaten Kansas City steaks and there’s nothing better. And then he tastes the wagyu.
As Selleck’s eyes widen at the flavor and texture he is experiencing, his companion explains that the beef is so tasty because the cows are fed beer and given massages. Selleck quips, “Maybe I should have signed up to be a cow in this country.”
While beer and massages have proven to be little more than a popular and enduring myth, there is no doubt that the cows that produce wagyu are pampered and their pampered lives contribute significantly to the flavor and texture of the meat.
Wagyu is the generic term assigned to denote Japanese style beef of the highest quality, known for its tenderness and high degree of marbling. Several regions of Japan produce wagyu, each one distinctive in its own way.
Yonezawa, in the southeastern part of Yamagata Prefecture, has a centuries-long history of raising cattle, so it is only natural that it should become a wagyu-producing area. Yonezawa’s wagyu, known as Yonezawa-gyu, comes from kuroge (Japanese black) cattle, one of four cattle breeds recognized for wagyu.
Beef was not commonly consumed in Buddhist Japan prior to the late 19th century and what cattle there were worked as beasts of burden or pulled plows. The cows of Yonezawa were commonly fed rice straw, which was high in various nutrients absorbed from the mineral-rich soil in which it grew. Since beef was rarely eaten in that earlier time (usually only for health reasons), cows that were slaughtered for food were usually around three years old and therefore less useful as working animals.
In 1875, an Englishman named Charles Henry Dallas (1841-1894) who had been teaching English in Yonezawa came to the end of his contract. Having tasted Yonezawa-gyu during his stay, he decided to take one of Yonezawa’s cattle with him to Yokohama, where he had it slaughtered. He shared the meat with his foreign friends in the port city, who also appreciated the flavor and high quality. It is said that this was the moment when Yonezawa-gyu’s reputation was established; its fame soon spread. Today Yonezawa-gyu, which must meet exacting standards to be so branded, ranks among the most popular brands of wagyu available.
So, what is it that makes Yonezawa-gyu so special?
Three factors contribute to the great flavor and texture of Yonezawa-gyu: fodder, gender and lifespan.
The Japanese Black cattle used to produce Yonezawa-gyu are predominately heifers that have never reproduced and they must be at least 32 months old when slaughtered. It is thought that the heifer meat is naturally more tender and the long period of fattening contributes to the marbling of the meat, an essential quality for Yonezawa-gyu. Indeed, this marbling is thought to result in both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, including Omega 6 and Omega 3, important for heart and mental health as well as fighting inflammation.
These “ladies of leisure” (or perhaps it’s better to say “ladies who lunch”) are mostly raised in cosseted conditions in the shadow of Yamagata’s Azuma Mountains. Their fodder includes that nutrient-rich rice straw that produced the flavor Dallas and his friends in Yokohama enjoyed so much, as well as a special blend of soybeans, wheat, bran, corn, and other grains. It is said that some farmers actually broadcast recordings of classical music to their cattle to further pamper them.
The result is high quality tender, juicy meat without any overpowering meaty smell and eminently suitable for both Western and Japanese cuisine. Popular as steaks grilled on a griddle or over coals, the meat practically melts in the mouth. Local Yonezawa restaurants serve their own top quality versions of beef bowl and even top salads with slices of roast beef. Thin slices of Yonezawa-gyu are fantastic in sukiyaki or shabu shabu, both popular during the long winter months. In winter, Yonezawa-gyu also features in imoni, a hearty taro and meat stew known that is especially warming after one has been out playing in Yonezawa’s snow.
A meal featuring Yonezawa-gyu is a fine dining experience not soon to be forgotten.
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