The Kobe ribeye steak comes from the Tajima cattle breed reared in Japan’s Hyōgo Prefecture and is one of the most highly-prized cuts in the world. Authentic Kobe steak is the perfect encapsulation of all that is right with the ribeye cut, uniting the two holy grails of steak: tenderness and taste.
The word Wagyu means Japanese cow.
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What Are Wagyu and Kobe?
Wagyu beef can come from four breeds of cattle:
- The Kuroge or Japanese Black (Tajima-Gyu lineage) is the most common Wagyu and makes up around 90 percent of their numbers. Kobe beef only comes from this animal.
- The Akage, also known as the Japanese Brown or Red, is reared in the Kochi and Kumamoto Prefectures. Its meat is lean and considered to be healthy.
- Nihon Tankaku or Japanese Shorthorn. This breed is native to Northern Japan.
- Mukaku or Japanese Polled. This breed is the rarest of all the Wagyu, making up only one percent of Wagyu cattle.
All Kobe is Wagyu, but not all Wagyu is Kobe. Authentic Kobe beef only comes from Tajima lineage cattle. Most Wagyu sold in the United States is American Wagyu.
Kobe beef is produced from Wagyu cattle raised around Kobe, Japan. It also goes by the name white beef because it appears that color at first glance. The white aspect is due to the extensive marbling (fat deposits) and this marbling (known as Sashi) in Japanese gives it its superior tenderness and flavor.
The Wagyu Olympics
Japanese Wagyu beef has a very high price. The highest ranking Wagyu is Miyazaki which has won the Wagyu Olympics on two occasions. However, Olive Wagyu, from the island of Shodoshima, home to Japan’s oldest olive oil plantation, is the rarest steak in the world and ranges from US$120 to more than US$300 for one cut.
A two-pack of eight-ounce 100 percent, A5 Grade Japanese Wagyu Kobe Filet Mignon costs US$299! Wagyu calves can be 40 times as expensive as U.S. ones – adult cows can bring as much as US$30,000.
Japan exported five billion yen worth of Wagyu beef in 2013. Last year, exports reached 24.7 billion yen. Many Japanese slaughterhouses are now also obtaining halal certification to ship to Muslim countries and increase their influence further.
Kobe Beef is a particular kind of Wagyu that many steakhouses or beef producers claim to supply. However, Kobe-Style beef is not the same as true Kobe Beef. Authentic Kobe beef is rare in the U.S. because strict standards limit supplies.
A Rich Buttery Texture
While Kobe beef originates from Japan, the rearing of Wagyu cattle happens in the United States, Australia, and Chile, among other places. The purity does vary from place to place. Wagyu beef produced outside Japan typically receives country-specific designation such as American Kobe beef or Australian Kobe beef.
The unique D.N.A. makeup of Japanese Black cattle is responsible for the distinctive intramuscular fat marbling. The dedicated feeding regimen of Wagyu cattle further boosts this world-renowned fat marbling.
Wagyu beef also includes inosinic acid and amino acids. These acids and the Sashi marbling provide a rich, buttery texture and exquisite flavor.
What Are The Requirements For Beef To Be ‘Kobe’?
The Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Promotion Association only permits 3,000 carcasses of Tajima gyu cattle to be certified as Kobe every year. Only a few of these carcasses are allowed overseas, and the Japanese domestic market consumes the majority.
To put that number into context, the USDA reported that 2.94 million cattle were slaughtered in the U.S. in one month alone in 2019.
Only beef from 100 percent full-blood Wagyu cattle, born, raised, and processed in Kobe, can be eligible as Kobe-certified beef. It’s similar to Champagne – if it’s not made using the approved method from grapes grown in the Champagne region of France, it’s merely sparkling wine!
One hundred percent full-blood Wagyu can not have any crossbreeding anywhere in its lineage, and mating two purebred Wagyu does not necessarily produce a 100 percent full-blood Wagyu calf. The genetics must be unadulterated.
Beef Marbling Standards
To be considered genuine Kobe Beef, the cow must be a Japanese Black (Tajima) born, fed, slaughtered, and butchered in the Hyogo prefecture of Japan. Kobe beef can only be from a steer or heifer (one that has not calved) between 28 and 60 months of age.
The carcass must achieve a grade of A4 or higher with a beef marbling standard or BMS of six or more. Butchering and further processing may only occur at the slaughterhouses in Kobe, Nishinomiya, Sanda, Kakogawa, or Himeji in the Hyōgo Prefecture.
The gross weight of beef produced from one animal must be 470kgs (1,036lbs) or less. The meat must bear the Japanese Chrysanthemum and the Kobe name as a mark of its authenticity. If the label only says “Wagyu,” it is not, in all probability, Kobe beef.
A 10-Digit ID
All Kobe cattle have a 10-digit identification number that allows you to trace the farm that reared them and even their herd. United States Wagyu farmers use the same system.
Breeding cattle and pregnant cows are grazed on pasture with supplementary silage, rice straws, and concentrate. Calves receive a special feed to ensure the meat has the characteristic Wagyu marbling. Japanese ranchers occasionally use a stiff brush to increase cattle blood circulation and relieve stress.
The steers and heifers go to auction when they are seven months old and then to fattening farms before slaughter. They finish at about three years, weighing around 1,500 lb. It takes only half the time for a typical U.S. beef operation to reach that point.
The History of Real Kobe Beef
Due to Buddhism and other cultural traditions, eating beef (or any meat from four-legged animals) was not allowed in Japan for almost 1,000 years. After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Japan’s new leaders lifted the ban to encourage Western values and remove Buddhist influences. However, meat-eating didn’t become widespread for another 100 years.
Wagyu cattle are not native to Japan. As they closely resemble Northern European and Scandanavian cattle, it is believed that Japanese explorers brought them back to Japan over 2,000 years ago as draft cattle helping with rice production. The cattle kept their genetic integrity due to the isolation of the Japanese islands.
When rice cultivation started to become mechanized in the mid-1950s, cattle became a source of beef. The Japanese economy started to boom, and beef consumption rose.
Japanese Exports of Wagyu Cattle
The Japanese government prohibited the export of live Wagyu cattle for decades to protect its domestic beef industry. Laws relaxed in the 1970s, and four Wagyu bulls were exported to the U.S. in 1976.
Two bulls and three cows arrived in 1993, and then 35 cattle the following year. The last batch came in 1997, and the entire Wagyu population outside Japan can trace their ancestry back to fewer than 200 cattle arriving in the United States between 1993 and 1997 after the first ones in 1976.
The first Wagyu cows arrived in the U.S. in 1976 for crossbreeding with Anguses. There is now a ban on live imports of Wagyu cattle, so it’s incredibly rare to find an authentic Kobe cow in the U.S.
Japanese Black purebred Wagyu cattle have been continually refined for over 100 years. Wagyu cattle suffered cramping from grazing on rugged and hilly pastures, and farmers would massage the animals to alleviate their suffering. They would also add sake and beer to the cattle feed, and these techniques, allied to the D.N.A. of the cow, produce a richly marbled, tender, buttery type of beef.
These breeding techniques and the cow’s D.N.A. produce beautifully marbled, buttery, and tender beef. Kobe beef is also higher in omega-three and monounsaturated fat, meaning it is healthier than most commercially-produced beef.
Kobe Beef Grades
Every Wagyu carcass rating follows Japan Meat Grading Association (JMGA) standards, which depend on yield score and meat quality, and are the sole meat grading association allowed by the Japanese government.
Yield score is the ratio of meat compared to the total carcass weight and has an A, B, or C rating, A being the best. In Japanese grading systems, the carcass receives one of 15 separate grade categories, A5 is the highest, and C1 is the lowest.
Meat quality includes five categories: marbling, meat color, fat color, brightness, and texture. Each category scores from 1 to 5, 5 being the best. For example, a Kobe beef-qualifying score would have a yield of four or five, a meat quality score of A or B, and a beef marbling score of six or more.
How To Cook Kobe Beef
To ensure you maximize the potential of your Kobe steaks, follow these instructions for preparing an eight-ounce Kobe ribeye:
- Defrost and thaw the meat in your fridge. Take it out of the refrigerator before cooking to bring it to room temperature.
- Trim the fat from the edges and use this to cook the steak. Use medium heat and place the steak in the pan when the fat has started to smoke (the trimmed fat will act as a layer between the meat and the pan and prevent the steak from losing moisture).
- Add a tiny amount of salt to the steak before cooking; the intense umami or delicious meaty richness that A5 Wagyu has is all the flavor you’ll need.
- It would be best if you aimed to sear the outer part quickly. Remember, you must only melt the marbling gently, not cook it. Wagyu beef gives off a very distinctive aroma at 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
- If you flip the steak at regular intervals, it should take about three minutes to cook it on both sides.
- Let the steak rest for double the time you cooked it (six minutes’ resting time for three minutes of cooking time)
For a truly Japanese experience, try it first on its own. Notice how it melts in your mouth, the “Amasa” or sweetness, the “Kaori” or aroma, and the “Yawarasaka” or tenderness. Try it with these accompaniments, too – remember, these additives complement and emphasize the flavors:
- A little sea salt.
- A touch of soy sauce and wasabi.
- Miso paste and a little fried garlic.