Kobe beef is a bit of a “holy grail” for beef lovers. There is a lot of legend surrounding the beef and what makes it so good. Real Kobe beef has been locked out of the U.S. for over two years, due to an outbreak of foot-in-mouth/Mad Cow/Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis, a truly scary disease if only for the fact that you can’t kill it by cooking it.
Many pseudo-foody geeks will freely spout off about cows that are fed and massaged with beer and sake, stress-free lifestyles, and other such garbage. The truth is much less romantic, but from all accounts the beef is still every bit as delicious as the claims make it out to be.
True Kobe beef refers to a combination of two things: a specific breed of Wagyu cattle, raised in a specific prefecture of Japan; the prefecture’s geography in turn reflects in the diet of the beef. The Hyōgo Prefecture of Japan, where these cattle are raised, is geographically restrictive and so in years past enforced a herd isolation and special diet that led to the development of this specific Wagyu breed and it’s traditional genetic characteristic that makes it so delicious: intense marbling (fat dispersed throughout the muscle) that is very low in saturated fats when compared to most beef. While Grass-fed beef is considered to be “superior” to grain-fed beef by modern hipster-organo-Paleo types, true Kobe beef is brought up on grain-based feed.
It isn’t all butterflies and roses, though. One of the defining features of Kobe beef is its tenderness; while mythically attributed to the cows being fed a diet of Sake and beer, as well as frequent massages, the real driving factor here is the inhumane conditions that the cows are raised in. The animals are confined to small, tiny pens evocative of the boxes that veal calves are confined to. Their movement is heavily restricted, and their muscles become extremely under-developed. While this enhances the flavor and tenderness of the meat, it comes at the cost of the dignity and quality of life that the animal experiences before slaughter. Even the conditions under which the animals are slaughtered can be considered rough, with cows being killed in an open field in front of other animals that are waiting to be slaughtered. Chef Raymond Blanc discussed the conditions at the Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery in 2007.
Beef that is billed as “Kobe” in the U.S. is, more often than not, Wagyu beef. Often times it isn’t even the proper breed of Wagyu, and even more against the grain, it is often cross-bread with American Angus stock, which dilutes the genetics that creates the prized Kobe marbling and fat. There are several strains of Wagyu that live domestically in the U.S., which for the past two years has been the only way for anyone to legally eat anything that even remotely resembles Kobe. It’s not to say that Wagyu, even cross-bred, isn’t good beef. But it’s not Kobe, and shouldn’t demand the same prices, yet the market around it has evolved in to near-scam levels.
I’m not here to debate the morality or humane treatment of animals, or whether or not one should be consuming meat at all. But for those who are interested in enjoying what many consider to be the highest quality beef in the world, there is no question that Kobe is king.