At a recent academic lecture on Japanese wagyu beef held by the Japan society in Midtown, the well-heeled crowd was restless. After hearing experts hold forth on how and why this cow flesh is so feverishly revered, a follow-up cooking demo heightened the anticipation. As we all squirmed in our auditorium chairs, a maddeningly chipper Japanese cooking instructor prepared wagyu dishes onstage. Savory smoke wafted out, and the sizzling beef was magnified on a jumbo screen. We could look and we could smell, but we couldn’t eat.
By the time samples were served, the audience had reached a Lord of the Flies level of desperation. Men in nice suits jostled each other for prime place in line, mashing themselves forward like cattle. Our minders sternly intoned “One sample per person!”
Such is the fervor inspired by beef from the world’s most exclusive cows, raised in small groups in a mountainous section of Japan, sometimes massaged by hand, fed beer and sake, and eventually fetching top dollar at tony restaurants and import shops around the world. There’s a whole lot of hype surrounding this mythic meat— and still many misconceptions, including "domestic wagyu" impostors, that obscure our understanding of it. Presented by Ryuta Kawano, a general manager at Japanese wagyu purveyor Zen-Noh, and Dr. Daniel Botsman, Yale agrarian studies professor and Japanese beef expert, the seminar was an opportunity to apply some academic scrutiny to this niche meat.
After we had torn into our modest allotments of wagyu (served in a wee rice burger alongside a pickle on a stick), there was time to reflect on some of the evening’s takeaways. For all the deafening buzz surrounding the “caviar of beef," there is still so much its average consumer doesn’t know.
With that in mind, here are 9 scientific and historical factoids that pull back the curtain on wagyu beef's allure.