For centuries, eating beef was banned in Japan. However, one type of Wagyu beef was very popular with the samurai. The Omi beef was used as medicine for the battered warriors.
When it comes to meat, one name in particular is big: Wagyu. Japanese beef has a reputation for being the most delicate and tender in the world. For many gourmets it is therefore the ultimate, they dig deep into their pockets for a piece of luxury meat. Wagyu is pure enjoyment. It was not always like this. Originally, meat was anything but food. It was considered medicine and gave the samurai special strength.
To be more precise, it is about the legendary Omi (also Ohmi) meat. It is reputed to be the oldest Wagyu strain in the world. Because Wagyu is not just Wagyu. The name is just the umbrella term for Japanese beef. There are more than 200 varieties. Including the big three: Kobe, Matsusaka and also Omi. The latter is said to have been produced more than 400 years ago, at a time when the consumption of beef was officially banned in Japan.
Meat consumption prohibited
Japan and its meat culture is young. For centuries, eating mammals in Japan was banned by edict. While eating fish, seafood, and wild birds was fine, meat from other animals disappeared from the menu. According to Buddhist teachings and the Shinto religion, killing animals is considered wrong, even impure. Which is why, as early as 675, an imperial edict banned the consumption of mammals. It was not until the late 1860s that the Meiji Restoration in Japan brought about a rethinking of meat when an industrial nation was to be built up. For the government, the people were too small and frail to meet the demands of workers and soldiers. So they should be fed by meat.
Already in the Edo era (1603 to 1868) a healing power was attributed to the flesh. Therefore, despite the ban, it was still sold. A little trick was used for this: the beef was not classified as food, but as medicine. It was made in Hikone, today’s Shiga Prefecture. It found high-level buyers. According to historical sources, it was Takayami Ukon, ally of the great general Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who treated the samurai with meat in the final stages of the Japanese Unification Wars and strengthened them for battle. This is another reason why granny beef enjoys such a good reputation in Japan today.
In Wagyu meat, the fat makes the difference
Shiga on the island of Honshu is the most famous cattle breeding region in Japan and is considered the birthplace of Omi beef and thus the cradle of Wagyu. The area is known for the production of extremely high quality meat. The water that the cattle drink is said to be beneficial. It comes from Lake Biwa there, the largest freshwater lake in Japan.
Unlike other types of beef, Wagyu meat is not surrounded by a layer of fat. Instead, the fat runs through the meat in fine veins. In Japan this is called “shimofuri niku” which means meat that looks like snow has fallen on it. This peculiarity ensures that Japanese beef is described as particularly aromatic and tender. Wagyu cattle are now considered a “living national treasure”. The marketing of the hyped meat also includes stories about the extravagant rearing methods. There are said to be Japanese farmers who massage their cattle every day, spray them with rice wine or play music for them.
Even if the Omi is one of the most important Wagyu varieties, the meat from the black cattle is not nearly as well known as that of the Kobe cattle. An explanation for this can be found in the early days of the commercialization of meat. Because when meat sales in Japan picked up speed, Omi meat was still sold under the wrong label. Because it was shipped to Tokyo from the port of Kobe, it was referred to as Kobe beef. It wasn’t until the meat was shipped directly from Omihachiman by train that it got its proper attribution back. In the meantime, two products in particular bear the name Omi – the meat from oxen and that from heifers. The latter is considered to be particularly delicate and has the addition Hime (princess) in the title. The meat of the heifers is said to be sweeter, purer and more aromatic than that of the oxen.
It was not foreseeable that Wagyu meat would one day conquer the world. The export of beef was banned in Japan until 2004, and live cattle and genetic material are still not allowed to be exported today. Nevertheless, the meat was also available for purchase in the past. But it didn’t come from Japan, but from the USA. In the mid-1990s, animals could be legally exported there for a short period of time for scientific purposes. From them the American Wagyu breed was founded. The luxury meat is now also being farmed in other parts of the world. However, the meat may not call itself Kobe beef, but only “Kobe Style”. The first Wagyu cattle were born in Germany in 2006.
– Wagyu from Germany: This is how the most expensive meat in the world tastes – Meat is my vegetable: These seven noble steaks have to be on the grill – Wagyu: How to grill the most expensive meat in the world perfectly
Sources: Embassy of Japan, Wagyu Association, Süddeutsche Zeitung