Japan has a rich culture of gift-giving, from midsummer gifts and end-of-year gifts, to presents for ceremonial events and to express congratulations or condolences. The process of choosing the right products to say the right things also applies to the makers of the products themselves. Itoham products are so famous they are a byword for giving gifts. One of their signature brands is the scrupulously made Ito Wagyu. (wagyu means Japanese beef.)
The title “Ito Wagyu” is given only to the very best black wagyu beef of at least grade 4, which has undergone rigorous care from fattening to processing, and then has been handpicked by seasoned connoisseurs. In this process, you can really feel the pride felt by Itoham Inc., one of Japan’s biggest meat brands, which was founded in 1928. You can tell the quality of Ito Wagyu with a single glance.
The editorial team here at SHUN GATE was lucky enough to receive some of Itoham’s Ito Wagyu to try. In this article, we give you our impressions of this product, including taste, appearance and other important considerations.
The first thing that strikes you about the thin, individually wrapped slices of beef, is their size: each slice is considerably larger than the palm of your hand.
As its grade of at least 4 or testifies, the gossamer marbling and vibrant color are mesmerizing.
We tried eating this Ito Wagyu sukiyaki style. Spread it in the iron pot and stew it lightly, removing it from the soup before the meat is overcooked. Then dip it in raw beaten egg. The fine strips of fat dissolve in your mouth, and the rich flavor of beef strikes the back of your nostrils. You can really taste the pride and dignity of Japanese black wagyu in that aftertaste that dwells on your tongue for a long time. Other than sukiyaki, you could also relish the natural flavor of the meat itself by cooking it lightly, and eating it with a pinch of wasabi or rock salt.
Atop a mountain in Shibushi, Kagoshima Prefecture, is Mirai Farm, one of the farms that produce Ito Wagyu. This farm, which was only set up about a year ago, is raising roughly 1,600 black wagyu cattle through manual work under the strict control of a newly introduced system.
According to the manager Koji Okada, Japanese black cattle are very delicate. “The Japanese black is the most difficult breed of cattle to raise. Good cattle can only grow in an environment that’s protected from the rain and wind. The summers in Kagoshima are very hot, so we’ve installed heat-insulating material in the roofs, and run fans to maintain the temperature. It’s not good to have a large temperature difference between day and night, but conversely, if the temperature remains too constant, then the meat will lose its firmness. We use computers to manage processes like feeding, but the condition of each individual cattle can only be looked after by humans.
Mirai Farm, which we interviewed for this article, sends its Japanese black wagyu directly to Sankyo Meat, a processing factory in the same town, after about 30 months of breeding. But not all cattle can become “Ito Wagyu.”
Out of carcasses given a grade of 4 or above, seasoned connoisseurs pick out those with quality worthy of the Ito Wagyu name.
Shin Fujita says: “We judge the quality from the cross-section of the sixth and seventh rib, which is the same place used to determine the grade. The criteria of quality include brightness of the color, firmness and dryness of the meat, balance of the shape, the visual quality of the marbling, and the shape of the whole carcass. Sometimes we check the quality of the marbling by touching it with our fingers. But the most important factor is one’s instincts. The moment that I see the carcass, my intuition, which I’ve trained through years of experience, tells me: “This is it.”” The connoisseurs’ well-trained eye is the key that ensures the Ito Wagyu quality.
Ito Wagyu, which is raised by hand in a careful and painstaking manner, is sure to make a very special gift.
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