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Pleased to Meat You: Beef in Japan

June 27, 2016

Ever since a beef boom gripped Japan in the late 19th century, beef has held a special place on the Japanese menu. Japanese cattle are unique, and so are the country's beef recipes. New dishes regularly grab diners' attention; one of the latest is the "gyukatsu" (beef cutlet).

Sukiyaki Flashback

I have childhood memories from Sydney, Australia, of sukiyaki parties at home in the late 1960s. I remember my Japanese mother, bustling over an electric frying pan at the dining table, turning the meat, adding more of the sweet soy sauce mixture, checking which guest wanted more. I can still smell the rich sauce and the simmering beef, and see my Australian father and his journalist friends and their wives, dipping their morsels into the raw egg – an exotic ingredient then. The parties were a boisterous marriage of Japanese cooking and Australian wine. But perhaps the combination was not so incongruous. That's because Japanese beef cuisine has always been a sort of cultural hybrid.

For hundreds of years the Japanese ate virtually no beef. Then, as part of the rush to Westernize at the start of the Meiji period (1868-1912), the government began encouraging the meat's consumption. The public embraced it. The most trendy dish in the beginning was gyunabe, or beef hot pot, now known as sukiyaki.

Some of the reasons for beef's earlier prohibition included Buddhist beliefs and Japan's 200-plus years of isolation. But once the doors opened, beef boomed. As cattle farming flourished, breeders developed a unique cow, known as wagyu, whose meat is richly patterned with fat. The name wagyu means literally “Japanese cow”, and it is a specific breed with long bloodlines. Meat from certain cross-breeds can also be classified as wagyu. The designation is strictly controlled, and an association grades wagyu according to fat distribution and other qualities.

Historian Yo Maenobo says the reason the Japanese developed wagyu was that they wanted something with a texture similar to the fish they were accustomed to eating. “Japanese did not show interest in Western cooking methods that focused on making tough meat more tender and delicious,” he writes. “Rather, they focused on developing methods of breeding cattle which yielded finely marbled meat.” [Food Forum, Kikkoman website]

But you don't need exactly the right ingredients to produce a good Japanese meal. My mother made adequate sukiyaki without wagyu. Her biggest challenge in Sydney was finding thinly sliced meat. No Western recipe calls for beef cut so finely, so no butcher knew how to do it. But without the deliciously paper-thin beef, you don't have sukiyaki. My father ended up buying a piece of rump for roast beef and trying to slice it himself. He gave up. We solved the problem by partially freezing the beef, then asking our local delicatessen to cut it on their salami slicer.

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