Kobe Beef is revered world wide for its unique taste and unmatched quality. There may be countless imitators, who produce “Kobe-inspired” meats, but only a handful of farmers hold the right to call themselves true suppliers of Kobe beef; a privilege that is not simply earned by raising cows in the Kobe area, but after a strenuous screening and vetting process that ensures the right cows are bred, the farm is situated in a suitable location and the meat itself lives up to a grade worthy of the Kobe name.
For those unfamiliar with Kobe Beef (or other prime Japanese meats), there are some obvious differences that can be found when comparing it to western steaks. First and perhaps most notably is that whereas most countries prefer a lean, meaty steak, Japan specializes in making the meat as soft and succulent as possible, so truly high-grade steaks will be marbled with thin veins of fat that spread throughout the meat.
But the differences are not merely cosmetic; 和牛 (Wagyu/ Japanese beef) has an abundance of Omega 2 and 6 fatty acids and high levels of saturated (luckily not unsaturated) fats. The fat is as important to the taste as the meat, as it makes the steak unbelievably juicy and tender. The fat content plays such an important role, that every cow is graded on a scale which measure the fat content, 1 being lean and 12 being the holy grail of pink flesh lined with strings of ivory white.
To qualify as true Kobe beef, the meat has to score at least 6 on this scale and every farm has their own unique techniques and recipes of foods they feed the cows to plump them up. The rumors that these cows are kept in luxury are all but true, as they are gently encouraged to pile on the pounds; the idea of force-feeding the animals is abhorrent to Kobe Beef producers, so the herds are kept inside a spacious, comfortable and temperature controlled room. Such lavishness is essential as the cows do not go out to pasture, as that would burn precious calories and lower the cows’ body-fat percentage, so they contently stay inside and enjoy their 5 star accommodations.
Every piece of Kobe Beef must come from a very specific breed of cow, namely Tajima-Ushi (田島牛). These big, burly beasts were once used to cultivate rice paddies and their hard work can be traced back to as far as the second century. Many believe the unique qualities of the Tajima-Ushi are due to Japan’s mountainous terrain, which formed microcosms of herds, sheltered from lesser breeds watering down the gene pool.
Keeping these genetic characteristics intact is just another reason why Kobe Beef is so amazing. To this day, keeping the bloodline pure is a vital factor to Kobe Beef’s success, so the burden of passing on these prime traits falls to no less than a dozen bulls nationwide at any one time.
The only thing more impressive than the quality of the meat, is the list of rumors that surround the farms that produce it, with many believing that the cows are serenaded with classical music, whilst enjoying a massage and some of Japan’s finest alcohol. Although every farm has their own unique technique to produce the perfect steak, these rumors are, for the most part, misapprehensions. Some believe that the alcohol can help with digestion and even induces an appetite, a problem during the languid summers of Japan. The massages are just the cows being brushed to keep them as comfortable as possible; and as for the classical music, farmhands may enjoy it, but there is no proof to suggest the cows favor Bach over Gackt.
If you are lucky enough to find yourself in Kobe, you will have a wide range of restaurants to choose from to enjoy the city’s most famous dish. Steaks can run into the hundreds of dollars however, so many may find it hard to budget for such an expensive meal. But, there are a few options for those on a budget. Firstly, if you don’t mind opting out of an evening meal, buying a lunch-set should save you a vast amount, with most eateries offering a set which is a fraction of the price of there standard dinner menu. They obviously range in price, but if you look hard enough, it isn’t out of the question to find a lunch set for around 3000yen (around 30 USD), which will often come with a drink, a salad and 150 gram steak cooked to your liking. Most establishments will cook the meat right in front of you, so you can see the quality of the cut before it is cooked.
If 3000yen still seems a little expensive, there is one more, budget option; a trip to Kobe’s China Town. It may seem like a strange destination, but there is a large stall that stocks a variety of Kobe Beef products, including Croquettes filled with potato and a sprinkling of minced Kobe Beef, and even Tan-Tan Men, spicy noodles, with a small pile of spiced and ground Kobe Beef floating on top of the broth. It may not be the lap of luxury, but the food is cheap and more importantly, delicious.
By Adam Miller
From WINING & DINING in TOKYO #42