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A cut above the rest: Japan's legendary Kobe beef
Why Wagyu is the best eating in Japan -- and the truth about beer and massages for cows
“To really understand Kobe beef, you have to chew it thoroughly, deliberately, to appreciate the texture,” said Michihiko Saito, head chef at the Kobe beef specialist 511 (pronounced “go-ichi-ichi”) in Akasaka.
As he spoke, he mimicked the act of chewing with his hands, moving his fingers up and down like a puppeteer bringing a slow-munching Pac-Man to life.
“Of course,” he continued, “the biggest difference between Kobe beef and other kinds of Wagyu is the flavor of the fat.”
I nod, recalling my first encounter with top-quality Kobe beef, at a high-end kappo restaurant in Ginza.
At that time, I’d been a skeptic. Having enjoyed plenty of choice steak in my lifetime, I’d suspected that the only thing truly exceptional about Kobe beef would be the price.
It only took one bite to change my mind. The crispy seared surface gave way to a buttery texture that melted in my mouth and sent a wave of dopamine-inducing umami across my palate.
It was an intense experience, one that reminded me of tasting ice cream for the first time as a child.
More art than food
Kobe beef is a Japanese delicacy whose reputation precedes it. The very mention of it conjures images of decadence.
The highest grades of Kobe beef can contain up to 25 percent fat, and the thin slices of it used for shabu-shabu look more like delicate pieces of lacework than steak.
Astonishingly expensive, with retail prices averaging ¥30,000 to ¥40,000 per kilo, Kobe beef infiltrated the global consciousness during the bubble-inflated 1980s. Like sushi, it’s become one of Japan’s most iconic edible luxury items.
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While the word “Wagyu” is used to describe beef produced from several varieties of Japanese Wagyu cattle, Kobe beef refers specifically to cuts of meat taken from the Tajima breed of cow, a squat, barrel-chested bovine with a glossy black coat.
To obtain Kobe certification, the cows must be born, raised and slaughtered in Hyogo Prefecture, and the meat is never exported.
Only around 3,000 heads qualify as Kobe grade annually, with each animal yielding about 400 kilos of beef.
Beer and massages
Rumors that the pampered cows are given daily massages, soothed to sleep with Mozart sonatas and fed a steady diet of beer have elevated Kobe beef to almost mythical status. Such stories still persist, but Saito dismisses most of them as colorful fictions.
“The cows do not drink beer,” he told me, before pausing to add, “but they do get massages.”
With his spiky, copper-colored hair and boyish features, Saito could easily be mistaken for a student. But his youthful appearance belies considerable experience.
Before becoming a chef, Saito had spent 10 years working as a butcher in Kobe and he’s one of the few Tokyo chefs licensed to bid on Kobe cows at auction.
Unsurprisingly, experience is the key to picking the best specimens.
Bidders are shown only a cross section of the ribs. In a matter of minutes, they have to estimate potential yield and quickly assess the quality of the beef, based on factors such as color, brightness, firmness and texture.
“You can’t touch the meat itself because the fat will start to melt under your fingers (at 25 C),” Saito explained.
“You have to rely on your eyes, and I always try to look for very thin veins of fat -- that means the meat will be tender.”
Off the charts
The Japanese beef grading system measures overall quality on a scale of one to five, and the level of marbling on a scale of one to 12 (anything over six is off the charts for U.S. standards).
The name of Saito’s restaurant, 511, refers to the highest-quality beef commercially available.
Saito purchases whole cows for the restaurant and the meat is shared between 511 and its sister restaurant, Ikuta in Yoyogi.
In addition to efficiency, the advantage of buying the whole cow is that guests can experience the different textures of various cuts.
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At 511, the cuts on offer change daily and the staff goes to great pains to explain exactly where each piece comes from.
On a recent visit, I sampled the sirloin (taken from the hip, between the short loin and the round) and the ichibo, a cut I’d never heard of but was told came from the lower back, above the rump.
Both steaks had been cooked in the restaurant’s special brick oven, which can reach temperatures of 1,000 C. They arrived at the table still sizzling, with tiny bubbles of fat glistening on their perfectly seared surfaces, accompanied by a salad and two kinds of miso soup.
The first bite of the sirloin steak delivered the familiar tongue-coating richness I’d come to associate with premium Kobe beef. I chewed it slowly, dwelling on the sweetness of the fat and the density of the meat.
Divide and savor
I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to distinguish between the two cuts, but the ichibo surprised me. It had a pleasant springiness and a deeper, bolder flavor.
The airy savoriness of the awajouyu, a thimble-sized blob of whipped soy sauce, served with it complemented the meat’s chewy texture nicely.
I was also able to try another of the restaurant’s specialties: Kobe beef sashimi. Neatly arranged on a small, rectangular plate, the deep-red slices of meat resembled raw tuna.
The server brought two kinds of dipping sauce -- I was instructed to use the tangy ponzu sauce for the thigh cuts, while the soy sauce was meant for the slices taken from under the shoulder.
By the end of the meal, I had done quite a lot of deliberate chewing and was well on my way to understanding Kobe beef in greater depth.
In the past, I’d only thought of Kobe beef as steak, but there’s a whole world of delicious possibilities out there.
As Saito pointed out, the skill of the butcher consists in the ability to highlight the differences in the meat’s textures and the skill of the chef lies in showing them off at their best. On both accounts, 511 succeeds.
Dear Plaza Akasaka, Akasaka 4-3-28, Minato-ku
+81 (0) 3 6685 0511
Lunches start at ¥1,500. Prix-fixé Kobe beef dinners are available for ¥13,000.