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 have to report the reputation of this delicacy’s taste absolutely precedes it. However, I was surprised to learn that what I’d always heard about Kobe Beef isn’t quite the truth.
Perhaps, like me, you’ve heard that the cattle are massaged daily to keep the meat tender. Or you might have heard the cows get a daily supply of beer to keep them fat. When my partner and I went to the Suma Kagetsu House in Kobe for our dinner, I leaned over to him and whispered if the rumors were true.
My partner cocked his head, said that he’d never heard this before and asked the owner of Suma Kagetsu House, Takao Kanai, about this. Mr. Kanai quickly shook his head and let me know that wasn’t quite true. I felt a little embarrassed, but Mr. Kanai assured me even Japanese people who live outside of Kobe believe these rumors too. He then answered my questions, like….
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, can only be produced in Kobe. Kobe Beef specifically comes from the Japanese Black Cow.
This breed has long been preferred by Japanese farmers 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 species of cows which gives it that gorgeous marbling.
The life of a Japanese Black Cow is different from lower-grade beef cows. Because the cow's genealogy is so important to creating a good steak, each cow’s pedigree is carefully tracked from birth to even after being slaughtered. On the farms, Japanese Black Cows live in the most stress-free environments farmers can give them.
Family units are kept together, mothers and calves are given wide ranges to pasture in, and penned cows reaching the end of their lives are kept in roomy barns with cleaner conditions than most beef cattle experience. Kobe Beef farmers believe that this stress-free environment helps create the most delicious cuts of beef.
Though there are reports that some farmers do indeed massage their cows, daily massages by teams of farmers are quite far from the norm. Farmers might massage their cows, but not in an effort 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 reports are so few and far between it seems this practice might be extremely rare, or just plain false. Most farmers say they would never imagine giving their cows beer, nor do they know any farmers who actually practice this in any fashion.
Besides the breed and upbringing, the beef must fulfill certain qualities to earn the label Kobe Beef.
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
Satisfying these requirements, the beef is awarded the “Japanese Chrysanthemum” seal and can be sold within Japan with the official Kobe Beef title. Beef that doesn’t get this award, however, might be sold overseas with the label “Kobe Beef,” but without the authenticity. If you’re in the United States, for example, the standards are much lower than within Japan, and what you get outside of Japan might not be the real deal!
Kobe Beef Sukiyaki
Kobe Beef can be prepared in several different ways. One of the most popular ways is by boiling it in a Japanese stew called Sukiyaki. This stew is a popular dish for families to make at home given that it’s a simple, warm treat made from vegetables and beef.
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 likely cold and cooked just 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. In fact, the price rises 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 particular 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 served to us raw, but we didn’t eat it sashimi-style. Next to our trays sat these small, personal grills heated with flames underneath. We greased our grills with blocks of fat, cooked our meat as perfectly as we could, and dipped into one of three options.
Though they say that Kobe Beef tastes best when cooked medium-rare, I’ll admit that I sometimes left my meat on my grill a little too long. Unlike my other experiences with eating beef, however, overcooking didn’t ruin the consistency or taste.
I can only describe Kobe Beef as the softest meat you’ll ever eat. My first bite, I bit down a little too hard expecting to need to tear off a bite from my strip. My teeth clacked in surprise as the beef had almost already split before I closed my mouth entirely. I tried to slowly chew to savor it, but it seemed to almost entirely melt in my mouth.
I can’t wait for the chance to come across this delicacy again, and I couldn’t recommend this experience more! The next time you find yourself in Kobe, Japan don’t pass up on the opportunity to try Kobe Beef!