If You’re in Tokyo, Eat Kobe Beef. It May Be Your Only Chance

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A chef cuts the highest award-winning female Kobe beef, which is priced 210,000 yen ($2040) per kilogram, at Kobe Beef Kawamura restaurant in Tokyo's Ginza district on December 17, 2013. Toru Hanai/Reuters

In the West, there may be no more macho food than the steak. It’s bloody, chewy, charred and considered by many to be the ultimate tough-guy food. Japan’s Kobe beef is the opposite. Delicate, refined, meltingly tender, Kobe beef is the meat equivalent of the finest sushi. A Kobe steak is typically a quarter of an inch thick and spends maybe 40 seconds on a hot grill that is positioned right in front of your plate. The result, a tiny chunk of seared meat small enough to be eaten with chopsticks, is an exquisite balance of flesh, fat and fire. It has as little in common with a slab of New York steakhouse T-bone as fine sashimi has with battered cod served in newspaper at a London chip shop. On a recent gastronomic pilgrimage to Japan, it wasn’t the sushi or sashimi that blew me away—it was the Kobe beef.

In truth, beef-eating is, unlike the preparation and consumption of sushi, a relatively new tradition in Japan; even wealthy Japanese didn’t eat beef until the 1860s, and Kobe beef is still a rare treat for most. Nonetheless, over the past century and a half the Japanese have managed to raise beef cuisine to a higher level than any other nation. “The ability to focus on one thing until perfect is either pure madness or genius [and] says a lot about Tokyoites, or maybe the Japanese in general,” says Stephanie Le, author of the I Am a Food Blog, who is based in Vancouver, British Columbia, and writes about all things Japanese. Like their world-class versions of beer and whiskey, the Japanese have taken an alien food and, arguably, improved on the original.

The secret of Kobe beef is its natural marbling—the tiny webs of fat in the meat that melt at high temperature and give the meat its near-miraculous tenderness (the finest cuts are so soft that they can even be eaten raw as meat sushi, known as wagyu nigiri ). Outside of its homeland, though, the real thing is hard to find. Native breeds of Japanese cows—known as wagyu, which simply means “Japanese-style cattle”—are much closer to small oxen than the hulking beef cattle of the American prairie and resemble their small, sturdy, plough-pulling ancestors. The tenderest breed is known as the Tajima-Gyu, or Japanese Black.

Within Japan, Kobe wagyu is a geographically specific, protected brand, limited to beef from the Tajima cattle of the Hyogo prefecture in western Honshu, right in the middle of the country’s main island. But beyond Japan’s borders, neither Kobe nor wagyu is recognized as trademarks, meaning that any cattle with Japanese cattle blood—including large herds of American and Australian Wagyu-Angus crosses—can be marketed under the same name as the original. Add to this a Japanese outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in 2010, which led to several years of export bans, and you can see why, outside of a handful of specialized retailers in the U.S. and Europe, real Japanese Kobe beef is such a rarity.

With top Kobe sirloin going for upward of $150 (134 euros) per kilo from the butcher’s block, a detailed system of certificates and grades guarantees that the consumer is buying the genuine article. It’s the marbling of fat that is key. The Japanese, Australian and Americans all have different official scales of quality because of different domestic import rules—but aficionados agree that the top grade is A5 on the Japanese Meat Grading Association’s scale, with a Beef Marbling Standard score of 12 out of 12. So rare and precious is top-grade Japanese steak that every piece of native-bred beef sold in Japan must carry a 10-digit ID number, like a posthumous passport, identifying the cow’s origin.

Kobe’s herds of Tajima-Gyu spend their two to three years on earth in pampered luxury. They are not, contrary to urban myth, actually fed on beer and massaged. But they do eat rice straw, hay and special feed-cake made from soybean, barley and wheat bran. One thing they almost never consume—unlike their American and European cousins—is fresh grass, for the simple reason that, between Japan’s steep mountains and flat coast, there’s so little pasture. One popular legend is true, though: They are played music at mealtimes, which apparently increases their appetite.

“Given the plethora of ‘Kobe’ beef in the U.S. and Europe which is no such thing, it’s a revelation to eat it in Japan,” says novelist and Japan lover Lawrence Osborne. “Makes you realize that not all animals are treated the same way, which is a bit sobering. It’s the best beef I’ve ever had but has made me more aware of not eating meat, most of which is pretty grim.”

So how to eat it, and where? With prices so high, it’s not surprising that the Japanese use almost every piece of the cow, from the tongue (pickled or simply barbecued) to the sphincter muscle, which is tough but excellent skewered and grilled. The classic way of preparing Kobe is known as yakiniku—you broil thin slivers of it yourself over a small tabletop barbecue, dip it in pink salt and chase it down with grilled garlic. You can also have it sukiyaki- style—thin-cut strips fried with raw egg. You can dip slivers in a pot of boiling water on the table, shabu-shabu style. Or you can have it served as a thicker steak with an onion sauce.

Any way, or any part, you eat, your first bite of real Japanese wagyu beef takes you into a new world. It’s meat but from another dimension of flavor. Never will the bloody, caveman pleasures of the Western steak seem quite the same.

WHERE TO EAT KOBE IN TOKYO

  • Satsuma Ushi no Kura , B1, 7-9-1 Akasaka, Minato-ku. Friendly and informal, cook-it-yourself.
  • Kagurazaka-shinsen , 1F Yashio Building, 5-32 Kagurazaka, Shinjuku-ku. Formal service, in private rooms.
  • Zakuro , B1 Shin-Nihonbashi Building, 3-8-2 Nihonbashi, Chuo-ku. Specializes in the shabu-shabu style.
  • Ningyocho Imahan , 2-9-12 Nihonbashi-Ningyocho, Chuo-ku. Butcher’s shop that doubles as a beef restaurant.