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The Legacy of Kobe Beef

Mar. 26, 2008
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Kobe Beef from Carnevor Photo by Kate Engbring

Every culture has delicacies—dishes so rare, distinct or costly that they tend to be enjoyed on the most momentous occasions. Some, like Japan’s revered Kobe beef, will appeal to a broader constituency than others.

The legacy of Kobe beef reads like tales of medieval royalty, in which the purity of bloodlines, pampered treatment and pacts between nations reign supreme. The story begins during the second century, when cattle from China were introduced into Japan. Japan’s terrain created isolated pockets in which different feeding and breeding techniques were used on the Japanese cattle, or Wagyu, and this made for distinctly different characteristics for herds in each region.

Cattle from the city of Kobe, Japan, became renowned for producing beef with extraordinary flavor and tenderness. “It has an equal ratio of meat to fat all through it,” explains Jason Gorman, head chef of Dream Dance Restaurant. “It doesn’t have chunks or strands of fat; it’s consistent all the way through. That’s what gives it the tender texture and the rich and subtle flavor.”

The traditional methods of raising Kobe beef include feeding beer to the Wagyu during the summer months when the combination of their fat and Japan’s hot and humid climate depresses feed intake. Beer stimulates their appetite, while a little massage therapy keeps them supple.

“With the massaging, it’s not like they have naked geisha walking around massaging the animals,” says Richard Kaiser, owner of Nanakusa Japanese Restaurant. “They massage to work the layers of fat into the muscle tissue. So when you look at real Kobe beef, it’s pink, not that deep red normally associated with beef.”

Following a 17th-century Shogun mandate, the herds in Japan were officially closed, except for a short period during the late 1800s. Either as a gift from the emperor of Japan or a government exchange, four Wagyu bulls journeyed from Japan to a new home in the United States in 1976. But the real influx of Wagyu genetics into the country began in the 1990s. Domestically raised Wagyu were crossbred with Angus cattle to create “Kobe-style” beef.

Just as sparkling wine cannot be called Champagne unless it hails from the Champagne province in France beef cannot be called Kobe unless it is imported from the environs of Kobe, Japan.

“The domestic Kobe-style beef is better than prime, with a flavor that has a real richness to it,” Gorman says. “It’s not as over-the-top, melt-in-your-mouth as the Japanese, but it’s definitely a better quality meat than most places will be serving.”

Nanakusa offers Kobe-style beef that has been domestically raised in the traditional Japanese manner at Snake River Farms in Idaho. With a diet of rich barley, golden wheat straw and potatoes, free of artificial hormones and animal byproducts, the cattle at Snake River Farms are fed four times longer than average cattle are fed. Kaiser serves the intensely flavored and supremely tender beef tataki style (rib-eye that has been lightly seared on the outside and thinly sliced) and hibachi style (cubed rib-eye grilled in garlic butter), as well as in sukiyaki and shabu shabu, which, as Kaiser explains, is served fondue style.

“You pick up the very thinly sliced meat and swish it back and forth in a hot broth that already has vegetables and noodles in it. The sound of that back-and-forth motion in the hot broth in Japanese is shabu shabu.” Executive chef Jarvis Williams of Carnevor serves domestically raised Kobe-style filets at his restaurant. “We have true Kobe with a certificate of authenticity, which shows the birth date of the animal, where it’s from and the ID number,” Williams explains. When customers order Kobe, “we advise them that their steak knife won’t be necessary,” Williams says. “It only takes a fork to get to the bottom of the plate.”

“We serve both domestic and imported Kobe beef at Dream Dance,” Gorman says. “We sear all sides of the Kobe to seal in the flavor and then slice it paper thin. We serve it with a Japanese presentation, with a rice noodle cake and a toasted shallot broth.”

While a Kobe-style flat iron steak that exceeds a prime rating costs $42 at Dream Dance, eight ounces of the real deal is $140. “I would definitely recommend somebody spending the money just to see what it’s all about,” Gorman adds. “Just to experience it.”


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