Along with a little dive into beef types and quality!
School has been tough this past semester, tough for students, tough for profs, and tough for TAs. So it was with much, much, pleasure that Joe and I were invited to try Miga Korean BBQ by Kei as a thanks for helping him to TA the course PSY372 – Human Memory. This year we tried something new for the assignments – giving the students a couple of opportunities to revise their work based on feedback from us, so we had to do a lot of work! Nothing like some good meat sweats for a good semester of hard work 😉
Miga is located close to the school and is quite a popular restaurant! The atmosphere was lively and exciting, even with plastic dividers separating tables. All types of people were there – different ages and different ethnicities – it was really refreshing to see. It felt festive and fun, and my mouth was watering before even being seated because of the fragrant aromas of meat and sesame.
When we sat down a lady greeted Kei with ‘안녕하세요!’ and a friendly wave. I guess she knows him well! Kei mentioned he goes to this place for his sons’ birthday dinners and he was also just here the week before. Even so, it was still nice to see a friendly face.
If you know from other restaurant reviews on this blog, we are gluttons. So it only makes sense that we ordered the Double Wagyu Combo. I have been to my fair share of KBBQs in my day, so you can trust me when I say this was not only the tastiest but most enjoyable combo I’ve ever tried! It was so good I hardly remembered to take pictures (sorry!).
The meal first starts with some salad in the delectable house dressing (I swear if I can find that dressing recipe then I can transition to a more plant based diet…), a cold pumpkin soup (refreshing!), and some fancy banchan. None of the typical leftover japchae from the night before, but well seasoned kimchi (more on the sweet vs. sour side), bokchoy, beansprouts, and potatoes! Nice!
Then they bring out some tempura of mixed shrimp and sweet potato – a classic combo. The tempura was excellent, fluffy, crispy, and not overly oily, and the shrimp and potato was fresh. My only wish was for more 😉 But we were not left wanting for long… next was the MEAT!
There were two types of wagyu, A5 sirloin from Iwate Prefecture in Japan (in pic below, the whiter one), and grade 8 wagyu from Australia (redder one). Before I get into some details about beef and how we can understand why these meats are special, from my lay(wo)man’s perspective, I can first describe the beef as beautiful. When you’re dreaming of paradise, when you’re tasting your last meal before execution, when you transcend earthly pleasures, wagyu is there. Not only does it have exquisite marbling, the fats and flavours melt in your mouth. I’m salivating as I’m writing this, it’s truly a wonderful experience.
Now onto beef. I’ve always been a consumer, but admittedly I don’t know much other than after I eat it that ‘it tasted good’. So today, let’s learn about wagyu! Why is it so hyped? Is it worth the $$$? Does it matter where it comes from?
First of all, before we get into quality, we should cover the various cuts of beef and what they are used for in cooking and how they taste. The cow is first cut into primal cuts which are the main portions of beef (see pic above), then those are portioned into sub-primal cuts which we may see at the butcher (e.g., tenderloin, filet mignon, rib eye, etc.). When we are at the restaurant or grocery store, the sub-primal cuts get further trimmed down into individual pieces like steaks, chops, and roasts.
For tenderness, the pieces of meat closer to muscles in the neck and legs are the toughest (as muscles get strong from doing lots of work) so people tend to say cuts of beef furthest from ‘hoof and horn’ are the most tender. Hence why that piece in the upper back side seems to be called ‘tenderloin’ I guess.
Let’s go through the main primal cuts with a brief overview of their respective sub-primal types along with their texture and how they’re cooked. We’ll start from the front (forequarter) and move towards the back (hindquarter).
- Chuck: Meat here tends to be tough, but can also be quite flavourful, which is why it is popular for stews and roasts, not to mention ground beef for hamburgers and meatballs! Examples are flat iron steak, Denver steak, blade chuck roast/steak, and 7 bone chuck roast among many others.
- Rib: Next to the chuck are fattier areas that are tender and withstand dry-heat cooking (cooking food at >300°F) and slow-cooking without losing much tenderness. Examples include prime rib roast, ribeye steak, and back ribs.
- Plate: Underneath the rib is the plate. This area is fatty but also has a lot of cartilage which is why pieces from here like the delectable beef short ribs taste so good when braised. The plate also contains skirt steak which is really tasty and often cooked over fire for carne asada.
- Brisket: The last part of the forequarter is the brisket. It’s tough, but flavourful if cooked correctly (imagine a BBQ pitmaster smoking the meat for >10 hours!!). Slow-cooking brisket (e.g., as pot roast) is also popular due to the decent fat content, and you may also see it in corned beef.
- Shank: Lowest on the cow is the shank, and there are two shanks in the forequarter and two in the hindquarter. Being the leg meat, it’s quite tough and contains a lot of connective tissue. Perhaps this is why few people eat this as it’s not exactly a steak served in a restaurant. However, it’s the type of meat used in osso buco (my mom’s favourite) and is actually quite pleasant when cold, such as in the dish 酱牛肉 (see below).
- Loin: Moving to the hindquarter, we have the loin (also called short-loin), and this is a portion of leaner meat that is best when grilled or fried (dry-heat). Sometimes best with just salt, examples include the porterhouse, t-bone steak, and strip loin. Interestingly, the way the steaks are cut by the butcher move in a horizontal fashion towards the rear, starting with the bone-in strip steaks (closest to the ribs), then the t-bone steaks, and finally a few porterhouse steaks. Neat!
- Sirloin: Next to the loin is the sirloin, which includes some great subdivisions. The top sirloin is a little tougher (as sirloin is closer to the legs than other cuts) than the loin cuts, but tastes similar. It is especially good when grilled as steaks. Bottom sirloin includes three cuts; tri-tip, ball tip and flap, which are good steaks when barbequed.
- A special portion called the tenderloin is also a part of the loin and sirloin cuts. In the sirloin, the tenderloin is called the butt tender and is usually sold as a roast for grilling and broiling. The front portion in the loin is where fillet mignon comes from. Tenderloin is special because it is very tender (surprise…) and can be cooked quickly with high heat.
- Flank: Underneath the loin is the flank. Flank steak is what we get from this area and it can get overcooked easily and become like rubber, which is why it’s recommended to quickly grill at a high temperature. Also, we can find this tough meat as ground beef which may remove some of the dryness.
- Round: Last is the round, the butt! Meat here can be tough as it is leaner with less collagen than more central areas, but again, cooked correctly it’s great when cooked at high heat (e.g., top round steak) and slow-cooked (e.g., bottom round rump roast, eye of round roast).
Great! So now that we understand the portions of meat, let’s learn about quality or the grading scale used to assess beef. Since we are Canadian, we will talk about the system used by the Canadian Beef Grading Agency (CBGA) which bases their ratings on standards set by the Government of Canada. For comparison with grades used in the USA, you can see this diagram.
The grade given to a cut of meat is quite complex and detailed. There are 13 possible grades and 5 yields. Yields are estimates of the percentage of retail cut (how much of the carcass meat remains after accounting for fat, bone, etc.). Yield values only apply to the top grades of meat (Canada Prime or Canada A grades) and the higher the yield, the better. You might have heard of A1 steak or A1 sauce for beef, so that’s generally where the name comes from!
For letter grades, they are based on a very comprehensive assessment of a variety of factors: maturity (age; younger = higher grade), muscling (excellent > good > deficient > masculine), marbling (amount and distribution of fat; slightly abundant > trace > slight > small > devoid), and fat (colour and texture; firm & white > inconsistent & yellow).
You can take a look at that huge chart if you want more specific details, but in general, top grades of meat are considered Canada Prime, Canada AAA, AA, then A. These are young meats with good muscling and marbling, and an abundant amount of white, firm fat.
Back to our wagyu, what type of meat is this? Wagyu (in Japanese: wa for Japanese and gyu for cow) is one of four breeds of cattle native to Japan. Wagyu is special because it is the only breed that is genetically predisposed to have that beautiful marbling inside of the muscle. This is different from the average fat that surrounds the muscles of non-wagyu beef.
The best cut of wagyu we had at Miga was A5 sirloin from Iwate Prefecture in Japan. Now that we understand cuts and the general grading scale, we know why this meat was so delicious – melt in your mouth, umami heaven. Sirloin is one of the more tender cuts of beef and the the Japanese grade (meat yield A; best) and fat quality (5; highest) is the highest quality. Additionally, wagyu from Iwate Prefecture is Japan’s most award-winning wagyu!
While the taste of wagyu can vary depending on the region in Japan it comes from, according to Joe Heitzeberg in 2019, wagyu from Iwate Prefecture has won top place in the National Grading Competition (Zenkoku Edaniku Kyoureikai (全国枝肉共励会)) 11 times! This meat is known for it’s “exquisite balance between umami and sweetness” (Cattle Farmer from Awaji Island, 2019) which I can definitely say was part of our wagyu experience at Miga.
For comparison, the wagyu combo also included a grade 8 wagyu from Australia (round shape meat). This is a comparable sirloin cut with a similar grade as the Japanese cut. Not to become too complicated, but intramuscular fat is rated on a number scale which starts at 0 (lowest amount) and goes up to 12 (highest) for Japan and 9 for Australia. Australia and Japan have matching magnitudes in their intramuscular fat rating scales, except that Japan adds additional values after 9. Therefore, the Japanese A5 wagyu includes values on the scale from 8 to 12 which is mostly equivalent to the grade 8 Australian wagyu. All this is saying is that both meats are on the high end of fat marbling.
As for taste however, they were different. While both sumptuous, the Australian cut had a more robust beef flavour than the Japanese cut as well as a slightly rougher texture (but honestly, both were still super smooth!). This may be due to the genetics of the cattle or the breeding environment. In Australia, it’s known that most of Australian wagyu is bred with other types of cattle (crossbred) whereas Japanese wagyu cattle are only bred with their same genetic strain (purebred). Furthermore, the outdoor environment and nature of cattle feeding vary (among many other things). For example, Australia wagyu is fed for a little over half of the amount of time that Japanese wagyu is fed for. These are the factors that likely cause variations in price, with Japanese wagyu being more expensive than Australian or other wagyu crossbreeds, not to mention other non-wagyu beef!
At Miga, to accompany the wagyu they serve the ‘seven ssam platter’ which includes seven items to wrap (ssam) your grilled meat. I haven’t seen a wrap made out of pickled radish before (usually it’s lettuce), so this was unique and refreshing along with the various vegetables and proteins you could include in the wrap.
And while the meal so far was filling enough, there were still noodles to arrive! For our combo, they served an udon Bolognese with meatballs made of beef bulgogi. Normally I’m not a fan of Asian fusion cuisine, but this combination of sweet tomato sauce, parmesan, savoury meatballs, and chewy udon worked really well. Plus, I love udon in anything really…
Overall we were quite full and extremely satisfied. Miga turned out to be beyond what Kei told us – it ended up being such a fun and delicious experience that I went back a few weeks later for my birthday 😉
Next up: using my new knowledge of beef, Joe and I attempt to cook steak (on the stove). I’ll share the adventure in the next post!
-Alfaro, D. (2020, January 25). Learn Where the Cuts of Beef Come From. The Spruce Eats. https://www.thespruceeats.com/cuts-of-beef-chuck-loin-rib-brisket-and-more-995304
-American Wagyu Association. (n.d.). What is Wagyu? https://wagyu.org/breed-info/what-is-wagyu
-Canada Beef Grading Agency. (n.d). The Importance of the Grader and Grade Consistency. https://beefgradingagency.ca/livestock-grading-in-canada/beef-grading/
-Fine Dining Lovers. (2018, October 5). Beef Cuts Explained: Your Ultimate Guide To Different Cuts of Beef. https://www.finedininglovers.com/article/beef-cuts-explained
-Heitzeberg, J. (2019, September 20). Iwate Wagyu: Japan’s Most Award-Winning Wagyu. Crowd Cow. https://www.crowdcow.com/blog/iwate-gyu-japans-most-award-winning-wagyu
-Osawa, K. (2019, April 30). The Difference Between Australian Vs Japanese Wagyu Beef Explained. Osawa Enterprises. https://wagyubeefaustralia.com.au/the-difference-between-australian-vs-japanese-wagyu-beef-explained/
-Squillace, M. (2022, March 15). The Ultimate Guide to Wagyu Beef, the World’s Most Luxurious Steak. Robb Report. https://robbreport.com/feature/what-is-wagyu-beef-luxury-steak-2855767/
-The Wagyu Shop. (n.d.). Australian Wagyu Grading. https://wagyushop.com/pages/australian-wagyu-grading
-Wei G. (2020, August 29). Chinese Braised Beef Shank & Master Stock (酱牛肉). Red House Spice. https://redhousespice.com/braised-beef-shank/