Kobe Beef is widely considered one of the finest types of beef in the world, and is sought after by gourmet chefs and adoring foodies alike. So, what sets Kobe Beef apart, and is it really all that?
Kobe beef is made from Japanese cattle of the Tajima strain, from the Hyogo Prefecture. The Tajima breed of cattle was introduced to Japan in the 2nd century CE, but for most of that time they were used as work animals for rice cultivation. However, the topography of Japan lead to isolated herds with little intermingling, so the Tajima breed of cattle developed individual qualities to the meat. Cattle started being seen as food in the late 1800s. But just being born into the right breed, in the right area doesn’t automatically make a Kobe beef cow. The calves are taken to a calf livestock market, where designated Kobe Beef producing farms big on them. The cows are then housed in a stress-free environment with a carefully designed grain-based diets until the time comes for them to be butchered. After the butchering process, the carcasses are inspected again to ensure that they meet the stringent quality standards to be labelled Kobe beef.
So why go to all the trouble? The flavor of the meat in unparalleled, with the best of both worlds: the sweetness of lean meat and the richness of fattier cuts. The extensive fat marbling in Kobe beef sets it apart from other types of beef. The fat has a melting temperature of only seventy-seven degrees farenheit, meaning it will literally begin to melt in your mouth. There are also fewer saturated fats in Kobe beef, and it is higher in oleic acids, which help reduce cholesterol, than angus beef. The stringent procedures for raising and slaughtering tajima cattle also means that the meat is free of added hormones and antibiotics.
Because of the low melting temperature of the fat in Kobe beef, there’s no such thing as ‘well done’ kobe beef. Seriously: Kobe beef steaks cannot be cooked beyond medium-rare or the fat holding the meat together will completely liquefy, leaving you with a sad pile of meat instead of delicious steak. So it’s got a built-in failsafe to keep people from doing something unfortunate, like ordering a well-done steak. Kobe beef, because of its particularly refined flavor, is most often prepared simply, without fancy sauces or spice rubs, so as not to overpower it. Traditional kobe beef dishes usually have the meat cooked with a quick sear, in dishes like sukiyaki or shabu-shabu, or completely uncooked in a Kobe beef sashimi. In non-Japanese cuisine, this mindset is kept when preparing Kobe beef, as quicker methods of cooking keep the meat’s flavor fresh (and the meat in one piece!). This includes recipes like beef tartare and carpaccio, as well as the occasional short rib meal. There’s also Kobe beef steaks, but since it’s so rich, you’re probably not going to find a 20 oz bone-in steak. Instead, Kobe steaks are usually smaller, and simply prepared: seared and served with a little pepper, salt or mustard for added, but not overpowering flavor.
It’s healthy and it’s delicious, but so is regular old steak, so why the air of luxury around Kobe beef? Price, for one. Authentic Kobe Beef can cost up to $300 US a pound. But when you consider the work that goes into raising the beef, the price makes some sense. There’s scarcity to consider as well: of the 5500 or so of Tajima cattle that go to market a year, only around 3000 of them end up certified as Kobe beef. When you take the cow’s weight limit into account, it means that there’s only a limited amount of what’s considered one of the most delicious foods in the world available per year.
The relative scarcity of Kobe beef is especially apparent for other countries. Kobe beef only became legal to export out of Japan in 2012, starting with China and moving onto other countries. By then, the rumors had started, that this was not only the most delicious beef-product in the world (which might be true), but also sillier ones, like that the cattle were fed beer in the summer, or that the firmness of the meat was achieved by routinely having attractive milkmaids massage the cattle.
Let’s say, for whatever reason, you’re going to get some Kobe beef, either at a restaurant or at a meat market. What do you need to know to ensure you get delicious, delicious authenticity? First step, you need to make sure you’re buying Kobe beef and not Kobe-style beef. With the rising demand and popularity of Kobe beef, both America and Australia have started raising Kobe-style beef. This is usually achieved by cross-breeding Angus and Tajima cattle which then have a long feed schedule. The Kobe-style beef has a lower fat content and more pronounced ‘meaty’ flavor. One way to determine this is through price: Kobe-style beef costs about a third of what Kobe beef does. You can also track Kobe beef by its certification number, input into the official Kobe beef website for information about bloodline, breeding, processing and distribution. The website also allows provides a record of exported Kobe beef, from when it was shipped to what company it was sent to. Restaurants that specialize in Kobe beef may also have Certificates of Authenticity from the distributor.
You also may be able to determine authenticity according to where you are eating. The US, Canada, Macao, China, Singapore and Thailand all import small amounts of Kobe beef. Europe, however, is far less likely to have authentic Kobe beef. The best way to ensure authenticity is to remain skeptical: if the price is too good to be true, it’s probably not Kobe beef. The only restaurant in America that has been certified as a partner by the Kobe Beef board is the Wynn Las Vegas resort, which offers a Kobe beef short rib at its Botero restaurant and a Kobe beef carpaccio in its Country Club restaurant.
Kobe beef is known worldwide for its luxurious and refined taste, as well as the astronomical price tag it fetches. For foodies, it’s something of a white whale: much sought after, hard to obtain, but completely worth it to the people who succeed in their search.