Do You Think You’ve Had Kobe Beef?

What is it about Kobe Beef?

How much will you pay for a good piece of steak? Thirty, forty, fifty dollars? Imagine paying five hundred dollars for the chance to consume the most prized steak in the world! In Japan, only beef from a special breed of cow from a remote, isolated region can make Kobe beef, the most prized beef in the world. You may think you’ve had Kobe beef, but odds are, if you had it outside of Japan, it was only “Kobe-style” beef, as importation from Japan is almost impossible! What’s so special about Kobe beef? Why do chefs and foodies pay over one hundred dollars a pound for the chance to taste it?

To create this special, expensive type of beef, the Tajima type of Wagyu cattle are raised in Japan’s Hyogo Prefecture (whose capital is Kobe), according to a strict tradition. As the bloodline of the Wagyu cattle developed in this region isolated breeding, prized genetic characteristics developed as well. The main reason why Kobe beef is so prized is its distinctive flavor and intramuscular fat—called “marbling,” which stems from these genetic predispositions as well as distinctive rearing techniques. Tajima cattle are genetically predisposed to a high percentage of oleaginous saturated fat, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which contributes to the marbling of the beef. Because of the isolated areas in which the cattle are raised, they are not able to exercise on such a limited availability of land. To prevent stiffness, soreness, and to induce hunger during the humid season, the cattle’s muscles are massaged. The ranchers also rub the cattle’s hides with sake, as it is often believed that soft hides produce a more tender meat.

Additionally, beer or sake is sometimes added to their feeding regimen. As a result of this careful, attentive breeding and rearing tradition, the meat from the cattle has an enhanced flavor, a good “mouthfeel,” and a tenderness and juiciness that some say cannot be beat. As most foodies know, the flavor of a steak isn’t in the meat itself, but in the fat of the cut, and when steak is marbled like a Kobe beef steak, you can only imagine the level of flavor. While delicious tasting, Kobe beef is also a great source of vitamins and nutrients.

The higher levels of good fatty acids protect you from heart disease, high blood pressure, Alzheimer’s Disease, and many more ailments.

If you happen to get a hold of some Kobe beef, it is of utmost importance that it is prepared correctly. A steak of Kobe beef are best cooked rare, and should never be served above medium rare in order to achieve maximum flavor. Many hotpot Japanese restaurants are even serving slices of raw Kobe beef to be cooked lightly in the steaming water. Any quick-searing technique like a stir-fry is also recommended. There are many different ways in which you can cook Kobe beef, but the one rule remains clear and certain: do not overcook it, as it loses that intense flavor the more the beef is cooked through.

Kobe wagyu cattle
Photo By Tavallai (Flickr creative commons)

Kobe beef, however, rarely leaves the country of Japan (in fact, it’s illegal in the US!), and the prices are quite steep. In the US, we understand that meat ratings go from “Select,” to “Choice,” to “Prime”—however, in Japan, Kobe beef is actually ranked “Platinum,” at least two grades higher than Prime. Additionally, in order to be considered “Kobe beef,” there are certain conditions that must be fulfilled:

1. The cattle must be Tajima cattle( you may see Wagyu  references, meaning japanese Cow) and must be born and farm-fed in the Hyogo Prefecture,

2. they must be a steer, or bullock (ie., a castrated bull);

3. they must be processed at slaughterhouses in KobeNishinomiyaSandaKakogawa and Himeji in the Hyogo Prefecture,

4. their marbling ratio, or BMS, must be level 6 and above, and a Meat Quality Score of 4 or 5, and

5. the gross weight of beef from one animal must be 470 kg or less.

One may wonder, with all of these restrictions, whether or not Kobe beef is worth all the money and hype. Some say that Kobe beef is quite similar to the ambiguity of quality in US Angus beef—that the genetics of the breed doesn’t always dictate the quality. Those who disagree say that the taste is all in the preparation, and that, if cooked wrong, one could lose the delicacy of the beef. However, this matter is continually up for debate, and restaurants outside of Japan have had a massive increase of mislabeled beef and faux “Kobe-style” beef (taken from Wagyu cattle crossbred with Angus cattle) to meet high demands in the US and around the world. Recently, programs have begun  to will eventually allow limited quantities of Wagyu beef to be purchased.

If these programs are successful, and if this type of market is profitable for the Kobe cattle industry, it may become possible for Americans to have not just “Kobe-style” beef, but Kobe beef itself. Only then will you be able to take part in the debate!