Kobe beef is perhaps the most famous red meat in the world.
That said, it’s steeped in mystery, extremely rare and becoming increasingly misunderstood.
Kobe is the caviar or champagne of steaks. Read on to find out why…
Kobe is a Japanese city. The beef that comes from here is actually a regional variation of Japanese Wagyu. Wagyu is the breed of cattle used for this succulent meat.
This beef comes with a price tag as eye-watering as the taste. Sadly, this scarcity and cost has led to unscrupulous restaurants falsely advertising beef which is not Kobe at all. Many upscale eateries have been embroiled in lawsuits but the consumer is still often none the wiser when they are being mis-sold this delicacy.
Some places will serve Wangus – this is a hybrid of common Angus with domestically-reared Wagyu breeds – while claiming it to be the real thing. In the worst scenario, there is no trace of Wagyu at all and the customer is cruelly misled while paying a fortune for a regular steak.
Wagyu is translated as “Japanese cow” and there are 4 traditional Japanese breeds:
- Brown (also known as red)
- Hornless (polled)
Black is by far the most common and accounts for around 90% of all Wagyu.
What is it, then, that elevates this particular type of beef above the competition?
In a word, genetics…
Wagyu has outstanding marbling and a superior quality of fat. Marbling refers to the streaks of fat and white flecks present in lean segments of the beef. It’s sometimes known as intramuscular fat and this has long been a benchmark for judging the quality of meat. Marbling does not refer to the outside layer of fat which is often trimmed away nor the layers of fat that occur between the muscles. Marbling purely relates to the flecks within the meat itself.
The fat in prime Wagyu is very evenly dispersed throughout the steak. There are no unattractive clumps or bands. Instead, you’ll see incredibly tiny dots or extremely thin veins which run across the entire muscle.
If you look at most raw steaks, they will appear red and white. Wagyu, on the other hand, is a uniform pink color. In effect, it’s an exceptionally well-integrated blend of fat and meat.
Not all fats are bad. With this type of beef you can enjoy. Unsaturated fatty acids are an important part of a healthy, balanced diet. In a forthcoming article we will look at this in more detail. Oleic acid is one of these forms of unsaturated fat and it plays a crucial role in flavor. Monounsaturated fats have a substantially lower melting point which is actually below the temperature of the human body. This is responsible for the way that Kobe melts in the mouth.
To the initiated, this strand of rare beef tastes and looks very different from other varieties.
The meat-grading rules in Japan are extremely rigorous. It’s well documented as one of the strictest places globally on this count. Every carcass will be graded according to 4 separate characteristics.
The Beef Marbling Standard is the most important. There is a scale of 1-12 for this rating. To put this into perspective, USDA Prime is the highest grade doled out in America. This would come in at around 4 on the BMS standard. Hybrids and domestic Wagyu are scored anywhere between 6 and 9 on this chart. Bona fide Kobe comes in at 10-12.
By combining all 4 elements, a final score of 1-5 is given along with a letter referring to yield. The chart-topper is A5 while A4 is still considered outstanding.
One of the issues with regular cattle is that they are crossbred time and time again. The aim is to get them to grow faster or bigger, stronger or fattier. Angus is the most popular beef breed coming from Scotland’s prized Aberdeen Angus. This has sadly become so watered down that to qualify on the USDA standard, no link to the original breed is required.
Things could not be more different in Japan. Wagyu ranchers are borderline obsessive when it comes to protecting heritage and bloodlines. There is legislation set in place for Kobe beef. This must be raised only in the Hyogo prefecture. The cattle must be pure Tajima – this is a strain of black Wagyu – and the tracing of ancestors often goes back centuries.
Wagyu in general is famous but Kobe sits in a class of its own.
One myth that needs shattering is that these cattle are routinely massaged and given beer while listening to classical music. This is generally speaking not true although the cattle are certainly treated with respect.
The government in Hyogo segregates the dozen leading bulls and houses them in a special facility. Their semen is used to inseminate every cow thus maintaining purity.
Wherever it ends up in the world, if it’s genuine Kobe beef, its provenance can be traced back to one of these 12 superstar bulls.
Not much, though, ends up being exported. After the process of slaughtering and grading, just 50% of the Tajima cattle actually qualifies as Kobe. To illustrate, this amounts to just 3000-4000 each year which is about the same as a medium-sized ranch in the US. The marketing board takes it job very seriously. Only eight American restaurants are licensed to serve Kobe. None is sold at retail.
The All-Important Flavor…
The initial bite is mouthwatering but the effect of fat accumulating on the tongue serves to suppress the tastebuds. For this reason – not to mention the cost – portions are usually really small. 3-4 ounces is the standard size for an entrée. You’ll never see a whopping 32-ouncer as it would not be enjoyable even if you could afford it.
Wagyu is served in thin, rare slices off the bone.
If you see Wagyu burgers advertised then exercise caution… The meat is simply much too fatty for burger grinds. At best you will be buying a hybrid. It’s quite likely you’ll be falling for a dishonest marketing trick.
Real Wagyu is always boneless. It will mostly be filet, ribeye or strip.
With an absolute baseline price of $20 an ounce, steer clear of anywhere claiming to offer this delicious meat at rock-bottom prices.
Pay attention to the above tips, do your homework and try to check out this truly unique meat. If you see it on the menu, do not hesitate to ask questions. Getting hold of Wagyu is no mean feat. If the restaurant has managed to do this they will readily give you any information you request.