Saga Beef: Wagyu To Remember
This beef produced in Saga Prefecture is the culmination of modern history, science, nature and culinary art
Most discerning meat fans are familiar with the term wagyu — it's a term given to a select few breeds of beef and is the epitome of culinary perfection. Although Japan hasn't always been a massive beef-eating nation, it's the country's lush, abundant natural surroundings, highly respected artisan culture, and explicit passion for culinary excellence that has made Japan a leading producer of some of the world's best beef.
Receiving premium wagyu level status is far from easy, and only a select few make the cut. Internationally, names like Kobe beef and Mie prefecture's Matsusaka beef have been receiving attention for a little while now, but the name on everyone's lips of late is Saga Beef.
Globally recognized as one of the best wagyu brands available, Saga Beef is the culmination of modern history, science, nature and culinary art. It's a proud product of Saga Prefecture's rich natural environment and passionate food producers.
From the time they're calves, Saga beef cows live a life of comfort and luxury, raised using expert breeding techniques, nurtured by attentive farmers, and free to relish the infinite beauty of Saga's natural surroundings. Enjoying its mild climate, crystal clear water, and crisp Kyushu air, the cows grow fat, indulged, relaxed and happy, producing meat that tastes the best it possibly can.
Saga beef status certified cows must adhere to a strict selection of rules. The breed must be Japanese black cattle (黒毛和種, Kuroge Washu in Japanese), one of the country's six native Japanese cattle breeds. In the early 20th century, these cows were expertly bred with stock mainly brought over from Europe to bring out the best in both breeds.
Saga beef's history is relatively short, which is why it still feels in many ways like a well-kept local culinary secret. In 1983, a local cattle-rearing group conducted a research program that led to creating this fine beef. Just five years after it was realized, in 1988, the brand Saga beef was established, certified and exported worldwide.
Japan's constant pursuit of delivering nothing short of the best rings strong in the Saga beef scene. The Japanese black cattle must be raised in an agricultural-association-designated farm, and their meat must meet a rigorous grading process known as the Beef Marbling Standard. All beef must score above 7 out of 12, or else it's not considered Saga beef.
The secret to Saga beef’s melt-in-your-mouth taste is in its tsuya-sashi, or "glossy marbling." Here, cooked in teppanyaki (grilled on a hot plate), style.
Marbling, known in Japanese as tsuya-sashi, or "glossy marbling," is the key to unlocking the meat's unparalleled flavor. The term refers to the white fatty parts woven into the meat; it's the (not so) secret ingredient to the beef's succulent, soft texture, juicy quality and melt-in-your-mouth experience.
Buttery soft, well-rounded, and robust but not too strong in flavor, wagyu beef and regular steak cuts aren't even in the same category. Unlike regular fat you'll find on a cut of meat, the white marbling of a Saga beef cow is rich with monounsaturated fats and essential fatty acids Omega 3, 6, 9, similar to what you'd find in olive oil and wild salmon. It melts when heated; the silky cuts unleashing a wave of flavor, both powerful and delicate, the fat beading as it marinates the meat. Saga is so well-marbled that from afar, the uncooked pink meat is so light and flooded with white that it resembles the light pink shade of a cherry blossom flower.
If you want to try Saga beef, and you should at least once, then heading to Saga Prefecture will be the ultimate, most authentic way to experience it. There are plenty of excellent restaurants offering local delicacy in countless different ways.
Kira Saga is one of the area's most legendary beef restaurants. It offers the specialty in various styles, including shabu-shabu (hot pot), sukiyaki, and teppanyaki (cooked on a hotplate grill). Open for lunch and dinner, the lunch offerings are more set-centric while the dinner menu is best for those who want to try the beef a la carte.
Steak House Tsujikawa is another excellent option for those looking to get their beef fill. This Saga staple proudly only carries locally sourced beef, so guests can trust they're getting a real taste of the area. Their most well-known cut is Imari beef, a fine, richly marbled cut with a robust flavor and smooth texture. The restaurant specializes in steak style cuts accompanied by a variety of carefully curated, complementary side dishes.
Hanamori Kiwami is Saga's most accessible beef restaurant, as it's open from 11:00am until 1:00am from Sunday to Thursday, and on Fridays and Saturdays it runs to 5:00am. The restaurant's key focus is Saga beef, and it proudly only serves cuts that sit at a 4th grade or higher level. Also, compared to many other finer beef establishments, Hanamori Kiwami's offering is relatively well-priced with lunch costing less than 2,000 yen and dinner sitting at the 4,000 yen mark. Budget-friendly, open all hours, and with a variety of offerings on the menu, there's no reason not to sample Saga beef.
3-9-16 Otakara, Saga Prefecture
Open: 11:00-15:00 (Lunch), 17:00-22:00 (Dinner). Closed: second Wednesday of every month
Steak House Tsujikawa
720-3 Nakaibi, Shintencho, Imari-shi, Saga Prefecture
Open: Mon-Sun 11:30-14:30 (Lunch), 17:00-21:00 (Dinner). Irregular holidays.
2-9-1 Ekimae-chuo, Saga, saga Prefecture
Open: Daily, Sun-Thu 11:00-1:00, Fri-Sat 11:00-5:00