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Kobe beef is one of the most expensive meat items you can get on any menu, mostly found at gourmet restaurants and sold at premium meat butchers that all charge a hefty price for a meat that basically doubles as a delicacy. But, there are some unsung truths about the item that not many people really know much about.
Most food lovers have chowed down on the most succulent meat that money can buy. But, not many people have curious enough taste buds to have tried it, and not many people have ever wondered what Kobe beef actually is. Whichever side of this spectrum you occupy, there's some truly surprising facts you should know about, whether you've tasted the dish, or even if you've never tried it yourself.
Kobe, by definition, is known as Wagyu beef from the Tajima strain of Japanese Black cattle, raised in Japan's Hyōgo Prefecture according to rules set out by the Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Promotion Association. The meat is heavily considered a delicacy, and much of its value is behind the beef's flavor, tenderness, and fatty, well-marbled texture. But, it's not what it is that's shady, the skeptical part of the beef is behind its layered origin story.
The consumption of Kobe beef in Japan doesn't date too far back in the country's story. Historically, the Japanese population mostly relied on fish as the main source of protein long before beef from cows was considered. For years, it was also considered illegal for four-legged animals to be eaten. This was due to the Buddhist belief that animals were reincarnated human beings. It was also driven forward by the Shinto belief that dead animals being eaten essentially contaminated or made the body spiritually impure. There was a lot that needed to change for things like beef to be consumed.
In 1968 that changed when the city of Kobe became an international port and the consumption of all meat was legalized. Tourists helped increase the consumption of beef, but it took some time before it was a mainstay in any Japanese diet. After World War II, food shortage was a concern that led to a shift in Japanse cuisine. US-occupied Japan ('45-'52) started a feeding scheme for school programs for school children to be fed. This meant that kids were slowly introduced to Kobe beef while the beef was already popular in foreign countries before this. It was then that the legend of Kobe beef truly began.
A major misconception is that the name can be used interchangeably with Wagyu beef. Wagyu comes from one of four breeds of Japanese cows. Many think that this is the same thing as Kobe, but, that's not necessarily true. According to Chef Gerald Chin: "All Kobe is Wagyu, but not all Wagyu is Kobe. Wagyu means Japanese beef. You can't call something Kobe unless it's certified from the region in Japan. If you call the other Wagyu Kobe, it's pretty much like calling California sparkling wine Champagne." It's this misconception that starts blurring the lines for many outlets that sell or serve Kobe beef.
The origins of Kobe beef is so layered and rich that it's increasingly impossible to separate the facts of it from the myths that taint it. One of the many misinformed stories about Kobe is that the cattle are fed a special diet which includes the serving of a drink with every meal. Yes, some farmers do feed the cows with it in an attempt to increase their appetites which results in higher fat levels which results in tenderness. But, that is not a staple followed by all farmers, as many farmers rather opt to serve water to their cattle instead. There are several other misconceptions that add to the confusion behind Kobe.
Another myth is the treatment that Kobe beef cows receive in order to make their meat more tender. Many had previously speculated that all cattle were massaged in order to make Kobe taste as textured, but this only carried a kernel of truth. The truth behind this is that back in the day, select cattle worked hard grazing in the fields when it was cold, and once they were returned to the pen, their joints heavily seized up. Farmers would then pound the joints to loosen them, and therefore, the tenderness would come from this. Only some parts of the world massage the cows today.
While America's love with Kobe originated during World War II when American soldiers passed through Japan, the true phenomenon behind Kobe only arrived on American shores in the 2000s. This was due to a ban that was incurred on Kobe beef following speculation that it was linked to a cow disease in 2001. This ban would subsequently be lifted in 2005 (where the craze and obsession started), only for another similar ban to follow suit in 2009 which sparked the shady story behind Kobe beef in the United States.
The popularity of fake Kobe dishes served in restaurants all over the country rise. The rebels residing inside everyone made them feel as though they were eating a forbidden gourmet meal. This went on from 2001 until 2012 when the truth behind Kobe beef was revealed in a Forbes investigation. It noted that no specialized meat from Japan was imported to the US, and therefore, for over 10 years, it was impossible that people were eating Kobe beef in restaurants. The truth is, if you're eating it outside of Japan, there's a good chance it's fake Kobe beef.
Cuts of Kobe are incredibly rare, to begin with. Not to burst any bubbles, but local restaurants claiming to serve Kobe burgers might knowingly or unknowingly be serving faux Kobe meat at a high price. While "Kobe Beef," "Kobe Meat," and "Kobe Cattle," are trademarked in Japan to avoid the selling of non-Kobe products, the U.S doesn't recognize the trademark, per se. This led to several restaurants being legally and morally free to name non-Kobe products on their menus, in hopes that customers would not be able to tell the difference, which, definitely worked.
In 2016, it was reported that only 9 restaurants were serving authentic Kobe beef to their customers and that the hundreds of others were falsely selling variations of beef and passing it off as Kobe. Though the number of restaurants selling the authentic delicacy has risen since then, Kobe remains a seriously rare commodity and that isn't found commonly in the U.S, let alone, any other place outside of Japan. This adds to many shady variations that are still under investigation.
Even in finding authentic Kobe beef, this doesn't mean that the preparation of it is authentic either. Several restaurants cook the beef 'American-style' in smaller servings than intended or executed in Japan. According to Chef David Walzorg, executive chef at Vegas' SW Steakhouse, their Waygu steaks are served in smaller pieces, cooked at a lower temperature, and served with a medium-wellness, which is not the Japanese standard that makes it authentic. As intricate, authentic, and rare as Kobe is, it's not necessarily exclusive.
Kobe, for all its mystery and rarity, isn't really the most exclusive beef the world has to offer. That title, however, belongs to renowned French butcher, Alexandre Polmard. His family worked for decades to perfect a meat treatment that involves blowing cold air over the meat in below-zero environments. This adds to the preservation which also adds to the texture of the delicacy. Polmard's meat ages gracefully to make it gourmet and delicious. The price tag for their beef exceeds even that of Kobe beef.
Beside its preservation, why would this particular beef be so special? It costs around the region of $3200 per steak. These cows are pampered and treated like precious gifts from being calves. Their cows, unlike Kobe beef cows, are raised to roam freely in forests and not farms. They are given stunning shelters to live in during colder weather, which means the cows live relaxed lives which results in tender meat being served. While there's simply no arguing Polmard's beef with regards to authenticity, how can we ensure the same when it comes to Kobe?
The price is the indicator when it comes to finding out if Kobe beef is authentic or not. Kobe will cost you something close to $300 per pound, and that would be the lowest price to offer. Any place serving you Kobe steak at a cheaper price should set off your scammer senses immediately. There's also value in looking closely at the menu before you. Many of them scream out the origins of the beef and specify Hyogo as the origin if it is authentic. This is to make sure you aren't undercut when it comes to you getting full value for your money the next time you're eating out.
Those are the most important shady facts behind the story of Kobe, as well as the origins behind the misconceptions behind the cuisine. There are several secrets associated with the dish, but it's important that you know what you're eating at all times, especially if it's this exclusive and this expensive.