I’m making my first trip to Japan early next year, and there are two things on my “must do in Japan” list: see Eric Clapton play at the Budokan, and eat Kobe beef. (Actually, I want to be Kobe beef, spending my life getting massages and being fed beer!) However, my former college roommate, who has lived in Japan forever, tells me that there are actually other types of Japanese beef that are just as famous and even more expensive. Really? So, what the heck are they and why haven’t I heard of them?
George T., Massachusetts,
This is one of those cases where perceptions outside Japan differ from perceptions within the country. In most of the world, Kobe beef is the undisputed king of meat, practically synonymous with luxurious eating. Kobe beef is also one thing everyone seems to know about Japan: I’ve got friends who couldn’t name a single Japanese prime minister, but they all know Kobe beef and will tell you at length how the “lucky” steers are pampered with classical music, beer and daily massages.
Within Japan, however, Kobe beef has competition. There are indeed other premium beef brands.
Before I name these mysterious competitors, let me explain that Japanese love to organize the best of any category into bundles of three that become known as the “Sandai,” or “Three Greats” of that type. All sorts of things get ranked, everything from mountains (the Three Greats being Mount Fuji, Mount Tate and Mount Haku) to castles (Kumamoto, Nagoya and Himeji). It’s never clear who decides these rankings, or how, yet there is surprising agreement about what constitutes the top three. And when it comes to wagyū (Japanese beef), most Japanese will tell you the Three Greats are Matsuzaka beef, Kobe beef and Omi beef.
So, if there are three great beef brands in Japan today, how the heck did it happen that only Kobe beef has worldwide recognition? As far as I can tell, it was almost entirely a result of sustained word-of-mouth, dating back to the middle of the 19th century when Japan opened to the West. At that time, cattle in Japan were kept as work animals and not slaughtered for meat, so when Yokohama, for example, opened to foreign trade in 1859, foreigners found it next to impossible to put beef on their tables. Word got around that excellent cattle were raised in the western part of the country, and the foreign residents of Yokohama arranged to buy some and bring them in boat. The port closest to the cattle farms was Kobe and, pleased with the quality of the meat, foreigners in Yokohama began to refer to it as “Kobe beef.”
A few years later, in 1868, Kobe also opened to foreign trade. People poured in from all over the world and businesses were established to serve the foreign clientele. In time, a number of restaurants opened to cater to Japanese curious to try beef, which was still highly unusual in Japan. Kobe became famous for gyūnabe, a hot pot of vegetables simmered with thin slices of beef that is similar to sukiyaki.
It wasn’t until 1983, when the Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Promotion Association was established, that a formal effort was made to manage “Kobe beef” as a brand. I called the association and spoke to an official who explained that most of the wagyū cattle in Japan are a breed called kuroge washu (Japanese Black), which includes the purebred Tajima cow that is raised for Kobe beef and other top brands of premium Japanese beef.
In order to be certified as “Kobe beef,” meat must come from a Tajima steer that was born, raised and slaughtered in Hyogo Prefecture, and must meet a set of quality standards that are the strictest in Japan. Tajima cows have fine muscle fiber and a high degree of fat marbling, which is why their meat tends to rank high in all quality factors.
Masahiko Maeda, the chef at 511 Kobe Beef Kaiseki, a Tokyo restaurant certified as serving only Kobe beef, told me the fat is of a special quality with a lower melting point than other types of beef. “That’s why the meat seems to melt in your mouth,” he said.
Approximately 7,000 head of Tajima cattle go to market every year, but only about 4,000 make the grade as Kobe beef. And while the animals do require special care, the stories about music, massage and beer are — ahem — just a bunch of bull. “We actually don’t know how those rumors started,” the official told me. “There may be a farmer who occasionally gives a cow a rub down, but neither music nor massage is standard practice and neither would affect the quality of the meat.
And the beer?
“You’ve seen the price of beer in Japan,” he quipped. “Who could afford to give that to cows?”
But seriously, beer would not make the beef taste better, and farmers don’t feed cattle beer. The association is doing its best to supplant these fables with true stories, such as how breeders have meticulously maintained the pure Tajima bloodline for hundreds of years in order to protect and preserve the special taste of Kobe beef. As part of that effort, they’ve launched a swanky website with English and Chinese as well as Japanese.
True Kobe beef is scarce, accounting for just 0.06 percent of the Japanese beef market. Not surprisingly, very little is exported, but when Kobe beef does leave the country, full details are posted on the association’s website so anyone can verify that it’s certified. I looked recently and saw small shipments only to Macau, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand and the United States, where the meat is sold in authorized shops and restaurants.
So, what to do if you live somewhere else but have a hankering for real Kobe beef? You’ll just have to visit Japan. If you time it right, you can see Eric Clapton too.