Where’s The Beef?

Posted by on Nov 6, 2011 in Hyogo, Travel Volunteer Journey | 3 Comments
Where’s The Beef?

It was two of my friends that first told me about it. The pair, who are unusually extravagant and humble at the same time, were in Las Vegas, trying to further their fortunes by playing poker. One night they decided to visit an upmarket steak restaurant. At the top of the menu was the Kobe steak; they asked the waiter how it could possibly justify its three-figure price tag. He gave them the sales pitch, and they handed over what, even for them, was a ridiculous amount of money.

My friends were blown away, but I have bad news for them: it was a fake. Unless the restaurant in Las Vegas had imported the meat through a sinister beefy black market, then what they had wasn’t genuine Kobe. Following an outbreak of BSE in September 2001 (which, unsurprisingly, didn’t make many headlines, what with everything else that was going on) the government imposed a yet-to-be-lifted ban on selling beef abroad. Kobe beef may have a worldwide reputation for excellence, but unless people have travelled to Japan to eat it from a licensed restaurant, something else – likely inferior – has been posing as the real thing.

Bizarrely, the Kobe steak as we know it today was discovered by a British man. It can’t quite go on the ridiculously-long list of Great British inventions, but Edward Kirby’s purchase of a steer from local farmers in 1868 certainly led to the meat’s early popularity.

Since then a number of rules and regulations have come into being that safeguard the brand from imitators. They could hardly be more specific. In order for it to be legally marketed as Kobe beef, the cow must be: born, raised and slaughtered in Hyogo prefecture; weigh no more than 470kg; cannot be older than five; and a handful of other onerous stipulations. If, for some reason, you weren’t sure if the meat was a genuine Kobe product, you can also request to see the certificate of authenticity that is shipped to every buyer.

It doesn’t stop there: the cow’s family tree is included with the documentation as is – and we found this strangest of all – a copy of its inked nose print. “Oh it’s very, very important,” laughs chef Keisuke Itoh. “A Kobe cow is like a thoroughbred horse. This one’s name was Yoshiko,” he adds, showing us a huge hunk of marbled meat.

A life-long Kober (Kobeite? Kobese?) and owner of four different Kobe beef restaurants around Japan, Itoh is the perfect person to grill on what is and isn’t true about the legendary meat. One of the things my friends were told back in Vegas was that part of the reason it was so expensive was that the cows drank beer and got massages. The waiter’s liberal description implied that the bullocks were living a life of luxury in a colossal bovine spa. Surely it couldn’t be true?

“Yes, it’s true,” says Itoh with a smile. “But only a little beer to help digestion, and the massages only happen in summer when the cows eat less. It reduces stress.” So no hoof-pedicure, but it sounds better than the life of most farm animals. I suppose it also explains the universally inflated price.

“Well, the cow weighs about 450kgs, and the fillet cut only makes up about eight or nine of that,” explains the chef, “And it has to be at least two years and eight months old, so there are many factors.”

Then there’s the results, which justify just about any price tag. Itoh sears the steak quickly and we watch a thin whiteness grow from the bottom up, like rising mercury. “Melt in the mouth” is a tired, dull expression, but there is no better way to describe the sensation of eating genuine Kobe fillet. Actually, it happens literally: the fat Kobe beef has a far lower melting point than any other type of beef. Feeling it slide away is like a delicious torture; it’s virtually impossible to hold onto the steak before it dissolves and slides down our throats.

All too soon the experience is over. We look at the chef, wide-eyed, like people discovering a universal truth for the first time: “Wow.”













  1. Karin
    November 6, 2011

    I need to try Kobe beef next year during my Japan trip. It looks really excellent. Somehow I am scared that I might not like “normal” beef anymore after I tried it ;-)

  2. Kelly
    November 8, 2011

    First of all, can I say i’m extremely envious of you? My love for Japan is such that even after 5 trips or so, I still dream of Tokyo’s rain-washed streets almost every day? And that is not an exaggeration. I remember the second time I visited Kyoto for a quick tour with a friend who had never been. As the bus was trundling along the streets, I look out the windows, spot familiar sights and thought ‘I’m home’. That’s when I knew I had it bad.

    So I sutmbled on this blog by chance from a feature article on CNNGo and while I AM jealous, I’m so happy you’re helping people to discover Japan is more than just Harajuku and Shibuya 109, and helping to restore their faith in the country. Looking forward to reading more!

  3. zichi
    November 12, 2011

    Kobe beef is a wonderful experience and a great restaurant in Kobe is the Moriya Restaurant, good lunch time prices too.