When you hear “Kobe beef,” you may conjure up the image of a Japanese cattle rancher lovingly massaging its ample hind legs, alleviating any stress build up in its body, while his wife gently brushes the hide with sake, bringing out the sheen of its coat. Such is the mystique surrounding the production of the world’s most exquisite beef. There is actually more truth than fiction to these tales of pampered cows.
Fact or fiction?
According to DK Lunt of Texas A&M University’s Department of Animal Science, an expert on raising wagyu, the premium breeds of cow are indeed massage and fed beer to whet their appetites. It is important that these cows continue eating, even during hot lethargic summers, to produce more fat deposits. But the brushing of their coats with sake is rarely done anymore. In the past, the quality of coat affected how the animals were viewed at livestock shows. Brushing with sake resulted in softer skin with more sheen. But at commercial events now, only the carcass is graded so the quality of the skin is not judged.
Despite popular belief that the marbling of the meat comes from daily massages, wagyu’s intense marbling is from genetics and how the cattle eats special feed of rice straw with nutrition-rich feed supplements made by blending soybean, corn, barley, wheat bran, and various other ingredients. The fat ratio increases with age and wagyu are slaughtered at about 30 months as compared to commodity beef cattle in other countries which are fed for about 24 months.
But just how delicious is this legendary beef? The difference between beef in Japan from elsewhere is its marbling process where fat and lean are interspersed, resulting in meat that is sweet in flavor and buttery soft that it melts in your mouth. People often associate the rich texture with foie gras and fatty “toro” tuna.
Difference between Kobe beef and wagyu
Any of the 4.4 million (2014) cows born and bred in Japan are considered “wagyu” (Japanese beef). But there is a distinction to be made between the three most premium brands ? Kobe, Matsuzaka and Ohmi, from the others because genetically, cows from these regions have optimal marbling ratio. In terms of quality and domestic prices, the Big Three are similar. However Kobe beef, perhaps because it is the easiest name to remember, is the most popular brand overseas. But not all cattle from these regions are anointed with the prestigious regional label because all Japanese beef are graded by four elements; marbling, texture, color of fat and color of meat. Only cattle ranked as A4 and A5 are given the official regional stamp of approval. Others are simply called “wagyu.”
Beef is produced all over Japan and because of the lower price tag, wagyu from the Tohoku region are in fact much more consumed than the more prestigious brands. In terms of pounds consumed, Yonezawa beef is the most while Matsuzaka is seventh and Kobe eleventh. Yonezawa beef has a very high fat to lean ratio. When grilled, there can be surprisingly little “meat” left, despite being tender due to the marbling. Iwate or Kumamoto beef on the other hand tends to be rather lean, resembling beef raised outside of Japan. Miyazaki beef has recently gained popularity as well. The lower ranked wagyu can be bought at supermarkets, are served in more casual restaurants and in lunch boxes as well. The higher grades of wagyu, other than the Big Three, when served at top restaurants will have similar marbling qualities of the premium brands. With a far more reasonable price tag, they would be a highly recommended culinary choice on any menu. It would be an interesting taste test to compare high grade wagyu with beef deemed the Matsuzaka or Kobe label.
More frequently, there are Kobe beef burgers or Australian wagyu steaks on menus at restaurant overseas. But the chances are, these meat are a far cry from the beef you can have in Japan. Very small quantities of Kobe beef is being exported, mostly to Asia and a small amount to the United States and Europe. The Kobe Beef Council publicizes a list of importers and the miniscule amount they sent out every monthly basis. The chances are what is more commonly represented as wagyu are beef from Australian and American cattle ranchers who have imported purebred cows from Japan and crossbred them with domestic breeds. While some attempt to keep the bloodlines pure and adhere to the expensive, nutrient-laden feeding methods of raising wagyu, many ranchers do not. Since the wagyu label is not clearly regulated overseas, the chances are the Kobe beef burgers on restaurant chain menus are much watered down “wagyu influenced” patties.
But even in Japan, there are cheap ways of claiming to taste the best in beef. Casual restaurants around the country will offer Matsuzakaya or Kobe beef hamburgers or croquettes. Usually they are attached to a meat butchery that genuinely used scrap premium meat. Because the cost is so harmless, it is tempting to try them as a novelty. But be warned that when minced, the taste difference is negligible. While they taste perfectly fine, there is nothing about these casual foods that resembles the finest qualities of the best marbled beef.
The most traditional way of having wagyu is thinly sliced in sukiyaki or shabu-shabu, and it is still the best way to appreciate the succulence of the meat. Steakhouses will also offer wagyu steaks but keep in mind, the portions will be far smaller than served overseas. For meat lovers used to 24-oz Porterhouse cuts, a 6-oz cut of Japanese steak broiled on a well-oiled iron grill and sliced into bite-size pieces, may seem like an appetizer. But surprisingly, the smaller portion is plenty satisfying. One prominent chef in Japan pointed out that to have an American sized portion of wagyu would be like “eating a stick of butter,” since the marbling process results in about having 50% fat. A fourth and more unusual way of trying wagyu is “tartare” style as a sushi topping. The sliver of rare meat melts in your mouth. Again, the portions are tiny but taste exquisite. In kaiseki course meals, a small piece of wagyu is usually served, typically broiled on a hot stone. It will be a one bite portion, perhaps marinated in miso, which gives the meat a strong, distinct flavor. But marinated beef will typically not be the well-marbled brands, but a leaner brand such as Kyoto beef.
When in Japan, eating a meal of marbled wagyu should be a culinary experience not to be missed. No longer is high quality sukiyaki or shabu-shabu the exclusive realm of business account dinners. Many fine restaurants in the urban centers offer special lunch courses that present the same quality of meat, but at a reduced price from its dinner menu. If eating Japanese beef is an experience American presidents like Barack Obama and George W. Bush say they cherish, it may be worth a try.
List of restaurants
The INNOCENT CARVERY Nishi Azabu (Nishi-Azabu)
The INNOCENT CARVERY Marunouchi (Marunouchi)
KOBE PLAISIR GINZA (Ginza)
RRR Kobe Beef Steak (Roppongi)
ROPPONGI P.T.T. (Roppongi)
Kobe Beef Kaiseki 511 (Akasaka)
NoMad Grill Lounge (Akasaka)
GINMEISUI GINZA (Ginza)
DC BBQ (Azabu)
Story by Carol Hui Akiyama
From WINING & DINING in TOKYO #48