Posted Fri Jul 16 2021
The Japanese beef is well known as WAGYU for its delicious taste. Especially, Kobe beef is one of the most famous WAGYU brand. Despite of its fame, not many people know what exactly it is. A cattle born and raised in Kobe? Or a cattle fed with Sake and received a special massage? Not quite. Venturing into the history of this very renowned beef teaches us the reasons of its specialness and fame. Now take a seat and let's learn!
When you shop in a supermarket in Japan, you see packages of beef labelled differently including "Japanese Beef (Kokusangyu)" and Japanese Black Beef (Kurogewagyu). Now you must be wondering, "Isn't WAGYU Japanese beef?". The answer is yes and no. Wagyu is Japanese beef, but Japanese beef is not always WAGYU. According to "Code of Fair Competition Related to Labeling Meat", Japanese beef refers to any cattle raised in Japan for more than half of its entire fattening period and breed is not specified.
This means that foreign-born cattle may be labelled as Japanese beef as long as the period fattened in Japan is longer than the one abroad. On the other hand, only the four breeds and the crossbred of these may be labelled as WAGYU, as Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries defines. Accordingly, WAGYU is defined in a more narrow sense than Japanese beef.
What are the four breeds of WAGYU then? The most popular one is the Japanese Black. It accounts for 90% of all WAGYU raised in Japan. Kobe beef is also a type of Japanese Black Beef. The other three breeds are the Japanese Brown (Akagewashu), Japanese Shorthorn (Nihontankakushu) and Japanese Polled (Mukakuwashu).
At first, cattle were used in agriculture and for transportation purposes in Japan. It was only after Meiji Restoration (1868-1889) that the Japanese started to eat beef influenced by the Western culture. The Japanese put lots of effort in crossbreeding between the Japanese female cattle and foreign male cattle. Despite of the effort, the crossbreeding actually did not go well and there started an movement to revive the pure blooded Japanese breed after the WWII.
However, the repeated crossbreeding resulted in the extinction of most pure Japanese breeds. The survived ones were the four pure blooded Japanese Tajima cattle found in the deep forest of Kasumi in Hyogo prefecture. The descent of one of the four cattle is named “Tajiro-go”. He left about 1500 offsprings naturally and is ancestral to the 99.9 % of all breeding cows for Japanese Black Beef today. This means; No “Tajiro-go”, No WAGYU!
You cannot ignore Tajima cattle when thinking about Kobe beef. Kobe Beef is called Kobe Gyu in Japanese, literally meaning Kobe cattle. However, Kobe cattle do not exist in the first place, and “Kobe Gyu” was originally called “Kobe Niku”, literally meaning Kobe beef. So, which cattle does this beef come from? Yes, Tajima cattle.
In the begining, the definitions for both Tajima and Kobe beef were not clear and many fakes were on the market. With the concern to this situation, the definitions were determined. Tajima cattle are the pure-blooded Hyogo breed, and are born and raised in Hyogo prefecture by designated farmers who are registered at Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association. Tajima beef comes from Tajima cattle that are slaghtered in Hyogo Prefecture while they are between 28 and 60 months old and have Yield Grade A or B.
Among Tajima beef, the beef which meets the following criteria can be certified as Kobe beef. First, Quality Grade (ranged from 1-5) must be more than 4. Quality Grade is rated based on the evaluation criteria such as marbling, color, fineness of muscle fibers and fat. Moreover, BMS (Beef Marble Score, ranged from 1-12) must be between 6 and 12, and carcass weight must be between 230kg and 470kg for a cow, 260kg and 470kg for a bull.
The beef is assessed before the auction once Tajima cattle are slaughtered. Only those that meet the criteria above come on the market as Kobe beef. You only find out whether its meat is Kobe beef or not when it is slaughtered.
The certified Kobe beef has a chrysanthemum stamp on it and receives the certification of Kobe beef. When you want to try Kobe beef, please look for a restaurant with the bronze statue of a cattle to make sure that you try the real one.
Now we know that the famous Kobe beef meets the very strict criteria, but what made it so famous? Kobe beef is technically Tajima beef and there are other high quality beef brands such as Matsuzaka or Oumi beef, so why is Kobe beef the only brand that reached the world? You will know the answer to the mystery if you look at the story behind the birth of Kobe beef.
The port of Kobe is one of the ports Japan opened to the West after the long history of Sakoku (the isolation policy). Since it was opened in 1868, Kobe has developed as an international city with many foreigners immigrated to the city. Kobe and its people are proud of their delicious breads, nice cafes and fashionable cityscape. These images have arisen from its history as an international city.
The immigrants in Kobe missed delicious beef they enjoyed in their home country, but there was no beef cattle in Japan at that time when eating meat was not common. They were left with no choice but to try a draught cattle. They tried many kinds of cattle from different parts of Japan including the cattle from Tajima region. The beef of Tajima cattle received the best reputation. The fame spread among the foreigners with time and the beef was called Kobe beef before anyone knows.
It is said that it was an English man who tried the Tajima beef in Kobe for the first time. The popular beef we have now may not be here today without him. Given that the delicious taste of Kobe beef was first discovered by foreigners, it is very natural that it is popular abroad.
I recommend Teppanyaki if you want to try Kobe beef. Teppanyaki is relatively a new Japanese food born in Kobe after the war. It was invented by a restaurant “Misono” opened in 1945 when Kobe was burned down in air raids and there was no kitchen utensils. Under the severe circumstances, Misono opened an Okonomiyaki (savory pancake) restaurant with an iron plate from a shipyard.
Great idea, isn’t it? But the problem was that American soldiers did not like Okonomiyaki of which they were unfamiliar. It was then Teppanyaki was born. American soldiers became a big fan of Teppanyaki and enjoyed the beloved vegetables and beef that were fried on a big iron plate by a cook in front of them.
If you already know Teppanyaki, you are probably thinking of a cook juggling salt and pepper. However, the entertaining performance started in the US by a Teppanyaki restaurant “Benihana” which exported Teppanyaki to the US. Influenced by their success in the US, restaurants in Japan started the performance as well. In Kobe, many Teppanyaki restaurants are authentic and allow you to enjoy food in a relaxed atmosphere while you find many Teppanyaki restaurants providing food with an intense grilling performance in Okinawa.
I am well aware that Kobe might not be the first on the list for your next Japan trip. But is great food not a great reason to reconsider your plan? :D