I am not a Los Angeles Lakers fan and this column is not about their star player.
It’s about a particular variety of beef developed in Japan that many people willingly pay an arm and a leg to eat. This week I’ll write strictly about the Japanese variety; at a later time I’ll write about the American version, called Wagyu, because I have a friend that actually raises Wagyu and I want to get his take on the subject.
In any case, the first time I tasted Kobe beef, it was selling for about $90 a pound. Compare that to current prices for USDA Choice for rib eye at $6.99 a pound – or even Prime at $14.99 a pound – and you’ll see that, in my palate’s opinion, the disparity in price far outweighs the value. There’s no disputing that Kobe beef truly has a unique and superior taste and mouth feel, but I’m not so sure it’s worth the price, especially to the average American diner.
So let’s deal with first things first: It is doubtful that there is a restaurant in America that has genuine Kobe beef. After the “mad cow” scare a few years ago, mutual bans between the U.S. and Japan prevented the importation of Japanese beef to the U.S. and American beef to Japan. I’m certain that one or more of my alert readers will let me know if the ban has been entirely lifted, but I don’t recall that it has been. In any case, if a restaurant says it’s serving Kobe, what they really have is probably the aforementioned Wagyu.
Here is the definition of Kobe beef. Technically, it’s not really a type of beef. Kobe is a city in southwestern Japan in the Hyogo prefecture. That particular locale has a decades-long history of producing superior beef. So Kobe means only that the beef was raised in or near the city of Kobe. There are other beef-raising cities and prefectures in Japan that have great-tasting beef, too. But Kobe seems to have the mystique and captured the imagination of American beef-eaters.
Legend has it that the diet of the cattle includes beer and the animals are regularly massaged with sake (rice wine). So it’s kind of like what can be called Champagne and what has to be called sparkling wine. Unless the bubbly actually comes from the Champagne region of France, you may not label or sell it as Champagne. And unless the beef comes from the city of Kobe in the prefecture of Hyogo, it cannot be called Kobe.
Like many cattle-producing states, steers raised elsewhere are often shipped for finishing to Kobe or order to overcome the appellation technicality.
Let me address the diet legend about beer and sake. It’s probably mostly a myth. I’m told that the ranchers in Kobe fed their cattle beer to make them hungry for the grain they were supposed to be eating. And the sake massage was for cosmetic purposes when it came time to auction the cattle because it gave their coats a shinier look. A more attractive cow or steer will generally fetch a better price at auction, n-c’est pas?
The characteristic look of Kobe beef is that it is so overwhelmingly marbled, so much so, that it looks like someone took a hypodermic needle and injected it with little tasty bits of fat – so numerous that when you tasted this stuff, it just melted in your mouth. That’s not hyperbole. It’s the truth.
But Kobe (and by the same token, Wagyu) must be cooked perfectly in order to achieve that melt-in-your-mouth buttery taste and feel.
For instance, I’m a “black and blue” guy. That means I like my steaks seared or charred on the outside (black) and cold rare (blue) inside. If you order Kobe or Wagyu that way, however, it will probably taste like you’re eating a raw stick of butter, rather than a buttery flavored and textured piece of beef. So it has to be cooked, at minimum to warm rare for optimal enjoyment.
(Side tip for all of you beef-eaters who order their steaks medium well or well done: Many restaurants will give you the worst piece of beef in the cooler because when you cook beef that far, the cut is virtually unrecognizable. Now here’s my tip: Order the beef medium, and then send it back to be cooked further. You’ll get the advertised piece of meat and it will taste a lot better, even cooked medium well.)
(Second tip: If the menu has a Kobe or Wagyu hamburger on it, don’t even think about ordering it. What a waste!)
So beware the word “Kobe” on a restaurant menu. It is highly unlikely that you’ll get what you’re paying for.
If the menu says Wagyu, then it probably is. But one of the issues I hope to address in my future column is the true provenance of Wagyu in this country. There seems to be some debate about the origin of the breed and which variety of cattle was inseminated to create the herds now under cultivation.
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