A Kobe Beef Steak Ready for Grilling
Kobe Beef has fascinated the world for many years. Stories of beer-plied cattle getting daily massages to create the tenderest, best-marbled meat in the world have circulated across the globe, making this dish as mysterious as it is delicious. I finally got the chance to try a Kobe Beef dinner myself, and I'm here to report the reputation of this delicacy’s taste precedes it. However, I was surprised to learn that what I thought I knew about Kobe Beef isn’t the truth.
Perhaps, like me, you’ve heard that the cattle get daily massages to keep the meat tender. Or you might have farmers give Kobe Beef cattle beer to fatten them up. When my partner and I went to the Suma Kagetsu House in Kobe for dinner, I leaned over to him and asked if the rumors were true.
My partner cocked his head and said that he’d never heard this before. He asked the owner of Suma Kagetsu House, Takao Kanai, if it was true. Mr. Kanai quickly shook his head and let me know that the stories are completely false. I felt a little embarrassed, but Mr. Kanai assured me even Japanese people who live outside of Kobe believe the rumors too. He then answered my questions, such as….
Japanese Black Cow
Japan has several types of high-grade beef, collectively known as wagyu. Kobe Beef is a type of wagyu that, like Champagne for France, is from Kobe. Specifically, Japanese Black Cows born and bred in Hyogo Prefecture.
Japanese farmers have long preferred this breed for their broad shoulders, plowing strength, and ability to fare well in mountainous environments. For beef, Japanese Black Cows genetically produce more fat than other cattle, which gives their meat that gorgeous marbling.
The life of a Japanese Black Cow is different from lower-grade beef cows. Farmers and vendors carefully track each cow's pedigree from birth to slaughter, because the genealogy is so consequential. On the farms, Japanese Black Cows live in the most stress-free environments as possible.
Family units are kept together, mothers and calves are given wide ranges to pasture in, and penned cows reaching the end of their lives stay in roomy barns with cleaner conditions than what most beef cattle experience. Kobe Beef farmers believe that a happy life helps create the most delicious cuts of beef.
Though there are reports that some farmers do indeed massage their cows, daily massages done by teams of people are quite far from the norm. Farmers might massage their cows, but not to “pre-tenderize” the meat. Any sort of massage is only done so to relieve any stress a cow might be experiencing.
As for that beer rumor, this seems to be just that… a total rumor. There are a few reports that some farmers might give their cows a bottle of beer in the hot and humid months between August and September if the cows don’t have an appetite. However, these claims are so few and far between this practice is either extremely rare or just plain false. Most farmers say they would never imagine giving their cows beer or sake, nor do they know anyone who does this in any fashion.
Besides the breed and upbringing, the beef must fulfill certain qualities to earn the "Kobe Beef" label.
1. The cow’s lineage is purely from the Tajima-gyu line and from Hyogo Prefecture.
2. The beef is certified to have a yield score of A or B.
3. The Japanese Meat Grading Association gives the beef a quality score of 4 or 5.
4. The marbling has a grade 6 or higher on a 1-12 scale.
If the beef satisfies all of these requirements, it gets the "Japanese Chrysanthemum" seal, and vendors can sell it domestically under the official Kobe Beef title. If it doesn't get this award, however, it might go to the international market with a label that says its Kobe Beef, but it isn't exactly authentic. If you're in the United States, for example, you'll get some impressively delicious fare, but what you get outside of Japan most likely isn't the real deal!
Kobe Beef Sukiyaki
Chefs can prepare Kobe Beef in several different ways. One of the most popular recipes is to boil it in a Japanese stew called Sukiyaki. Families often make this at home because it’s a simple and warm treat.
If you want to eat Kobe Beef in its purest form, consider ordering a steak. It’s said that Kobe Beef is best eaten at a medium-rare temperature, but in my experience cooking it a little more doesn’t take away from the soft texture. Or, you can go the opposite way and eat it as bloody as possible by ordering your Kobe Beef sashimi style. The meat isn’t entirely raw, but it will be cold and cooked only long enough to kill any possible bacteria on the surface.
But a real treat for eating Kobe Beef is going to a Teppanyaki restaurant. Foreign people to Japan might recognize the word Hibachi when thinking about Japanese-style steakhouses. Technically, when a chef cooks in front of you over a propane gas range, this is Teppanyaki. Hibachi is similar, but Hibachi actually means that the chefs cook over an open-flame grill! Have you been using these terms wrong? I know I have!
Note: Some may be intimidated by the price of Kobe Beef. The cost has been rising every year due to the small population of pedigreed cattle, and the increasing exportation of Kobe Beef to other countries. There are, however, some places where you can still get a fair price for a meal!
Thinly Sliced Strips of Kobe Beef on a Hibachi Grill
My dinner came as a set including rice, miso soup, pickled and roasted vegetables, sashimi-style fish, and tofu topped with salmon roe.
The beef was served to me in unbelievably thin strips and simply seasoned with a little salt and pepper. Even in these portioned sizes, you can see how much fat is captured in every little bite.
The beef was raw, but we didn’t eat it sashimi-style. Next to our trays sat these small, personal grills heated with flames underneath. We greased them with blocks of fat, cooked our meat as perfectly as we could, and dipped the slices into one of three sauces.
They say that Kobe Beef tastes best when cooked medium-rare, but I admit that I sometimes left my meat on my grill a little too long. Unlike my other experiences with eating beef, however, overcooking it didn’t ruin the consistency or taste.
I can only describe Kobe Beef as the softest meat you’ll ever eat. On my first serving, I bit down a little too hard, expecting to need to tear off a morsel from my strip. My teeth clacked in surprise as the beef had almost already split before I closed my mouth entirely. I tried to chew slowly and savor it, but it seemed to melt almost immediately.
I can’t wait for the chance to come across this delicacy again, and I couldn’t recommend it more. The next time you find yourself in Kobe, Japan, don’t pass up on the opportunity to try Kobe Beef!