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Japanese Yakiniku Beef Cuts Explained

Here is a guide to navigate the worlds of Wagyu beef and yakiniku - even if you don't speak Japanese. The usual rules of Western butchery don't apply. 

2017-06-01 12:28:42 2019-08-05 17:25:54

Once regarded as an ultra-premium import from Japan, Wagyu is now offered everywhere from high-end restaurants to even casual bistros. Literally translated, “wa” means Japanese and “gyu” means beef — although you’re not always getting beef from Japan. Much of this beef is often loosely termed as ‘Wagyu’, and it’s often produced outside of Japan, and sometimes of an inferior quality due to poorer breeding conditions or mixed bloodlines from non-Japanese cows.

For beef to be truly labelled Wagyu, it has to come from one of the four heritage breeds that originated from Japan: the Japanese Black, Japanese Brown , Japanese Polled and Japanese Shorthorn. Every piece of meat obtained should come with a certificate detailing it’s source, grading and bloodline.

We speak to Bingo, a Japanese Beef Specialist (yes, that’s his actual job title) with 13 years of experience for the lowdown on Wagyu beef. He’s hoping to draw recognition for individual farms — most Wagyu is categorised by the prefectures that they’re produced in; Hyogo (Kobe beef), Matsusaka (Matsusaka beef), Shiga (Ōmi beef). However, individual farmers have their own breeding programmes and rearing techniques, which result in a unique taste for each estate’s beef, almost like a terroir for wine. Some farmers have been known to feed their cattle olives, although the pervading myth that Kobe beef cattle are fed beer and given spa-like massages (which is actually just brushing) only applies to a very small portion of farms, explains Bingo.

Grading The Meat

You might have seen Wagyu being branded as grade A4 or A5, but what does it really mean? All Wagyu beef is given a alphabetical grade from A to C, which indicates the yield of the beef, measured according to the proportion of meat obtained from a single carcass. The numerical grade is given from 1-5, and is a measurement of meat quality based on marbling, colour and brightness, firmness and texture of meat as well as the colour and quality of fat. Here’s an in-depth guide with images to see if you’re getting the good stuff.

Japanese VS American Butchery

Because the meat from Wagyu cattle is so different from regular cows’, butchery for Wagyu is slightly different compared to the more common U.S. cuts. Most of the cuts are made along fat caps or the layer of fats surrounding muscles as Wagyu fat is particularly soft and easily separated. Because of this, butchering and portioning Wagyu also requires a fair amount of skill as you have to be both accurate and fast – the fat of the beef begins melting as soon as it gets into contact with body heat. 

Yakiniku Choice Cuts

Navigating a yakiniku menu can be daunting — Japanese cuts are vastly different from Western-style butchery, and because of Wagyu’s exceptional marbling and texture, cuts that are usually not considered prime steak material in Western restaurants are coveted by yakiniku places. The philosophy’s also different. While tenderness is analogous to luxury (explaining why the tenderloin has long been considered the one of the most luxurious cuts) in the Western culinary world, much of the enjoyment of yakiniku comes from getting to appreciate the wide range of textures and flavours that the animal has to offer.

Popular Yakiniku Cuts:Wagyu Beef 101 8

Gyutan – tongue

Tongue requires a long cooking time to become tender, so it’s usually sliced carppacio-thin for yakiniku, and grilled quickly until rare or medium-rare. Gyutan has a rich, deep flavour but also tastes surprisingly clean, making it a delicacy in yakiniku.
Wagyu Beef 101 7

Karubi – boneless short rib

Juicy and exceptionally marbled. Normal beef short ribs are usually braised or slow-cooked to render the chewy meat tender, but Wagyu short ribs are still tender after being quickly grilled. For an even more marbled piece of meat, go for the karubi sankaku, or ‘three corners’.

Naka Karubi – finger ri

Usually what’s left on the roast part of the beef after the ribs are removed. While considered an off-cut in Western butchery, naka karubi is prized for yakiniku barbecuing due to their slightly chewy texture and marbling — intense, beefy flavours build as you chew it.Wagyu Beef 101 3

Jo-rosu – chuck roll

A flap of meat cut that’s considered a prime part of the chuck roll due to its relative rarity and flavourful, melt-in-your-mouth properties. It’s also sometimes known as zabuton, due to its resemblance to the traditional Japanese sitting cushion.
Wagyu Beef 101 9

Misuji – oyster blade

Misuji, or ‘three muscles’, due to the distinct lines of gristle and fat running down the cut of meat. Located just under the shoulder blade, this cut yields only about three kilograms from each cow and has a complex, rich flavour as it’s a muscle that did plenty of work.

Wagyu Beef 101 5

Sirloin

One of the most popular cuts for steak for both steaks and yakiniku, and for good reason — the meat is cut from the back of a cow, and is a balance of tender, juicy and flavourful.

Wagyu Beef 101 6

Harami – skirt

The skirt steak is close to the diaphragm area of the cow, and has a bold, almost minerally-flavour that takes well to marination. Yakiniku places often season this cut with miso or soy sauce. Because it’s leaner than some of the other cuts, you’ll want to grill it a little longer to bring out its full flavour.

To try the different cuts of Wagyu, be sure to check out the newly opened Aburi-ya and their sister outlet, The Container Wagyu & Tapas Bar. They’re working with the beef specialist, Bingo, to bring in the entire Wagyu cow to keep costs down, and also allows them to offer a wide range of cuts both as yakiniku, or the Wagyu tapas served at the container bar.

78 & 79 Boat Quay, Singapore 049886/7. Tel: +65 6532 0365

Before writing about food, Weets wrote about music, and is still waiting patiently for the day he spontaneously develops synaesthesia so he can reconcile the two.