The Mysterious Tenderness of Kobe Beef

The Mysterious Tenderness of Kobe Beef
A trip to the Japanese city to find the truth behind the myths about the most exquisite meat in the world
El País: El misterio de la ternera de Kobe
Manuel Ángel-Méndez reporting from Kobe October 18, 2011

Perhaps you’ve heard the story before. The most expensive, exotic, and delicious meat in the world. The tenderness of Kobe. Its delicacy and flavor are unequaled. It dissolves on the palate, they say, like a tender delicacy from another world. As delicious as it is exclusive. A minuscule beefsteak can cost more than 100 euros. The secret? The legends converge on one: cows fed with beer, massaged every day, and trained with classical music in the green larders of Kobe, a city 600 kilometers southwest of Tokyo, Japan. Ancient Japanese farmers invented the technique at the beginning of the 19th century. Since then, the legend, as musical as it is enigmatic, repeated from mouth to mouth, has spread throughout the world.

But is this the real truth? Since when has the bubbly exercised such power over livestock? And what composer do the bovines prefer? Schumann? Perhaps Mozart? What do we really know about the most expensive meat in the world? There are too many questions, and I [Manuel Ángel-Méndez] had only one way to weather the storm: to travel 9000 kilometers to the location of the secret.

With a million and a half inhabitants, Kobe is a fringe stuck between the sea of Seto, the shore of the Pacific, and the smooth mountains of the west, wrapped in a perpetual, dense cloud. 30 kilometers away, the colossal Osaka displays all the attractiveness of frenetic nights of neon. Its younger sister is precisely the opposite: solemnity and sweet walks. One can arrive to almost any street corner on foot. The nerve center, around Sannomiya Station, is the perfect location to begin.

Nobody Knows Anything
Out there, in the information office, I make my first contact with the mystery. “Is it true that they give beer to the cows?” A young woman in uniform smiles nervously. “They say that, but to tell you the truth, I’m not quite sure.” Her coworker, double her age and clearly her superior, interrupts her. “We don’t know anything.” She pulls out black and white papers. They contain blurry photos, large pieces of beef hung in some warehouse with long explanations in Japanese. Only one phrase, underlined in English, stands out: “the farms are not open to the public in order to maintain the secret of the business.” Secret? “You’d have to talk to the chefs.” After a long hesitation, she connects various points on the map, a route for a kind of treasure hunt: the best restaurants to taste the authentic meat of Kobe.

My first stop was the port: The Sandaya, a giant establishment with more than 30 years of history. It’s early on a sunny morning, and its chef, Katsuji Inoue, speaks happily about the topic. The tajima-ushi is a branch of Japanese livestock (wagyu) distinctive to the country. Cows with black hair, sturdy, as large as 350 kilograms large. Its meat is famous for the deep veins of fat and the pallid and greasy appearance. Dozens of cities and prefectures produce calves of the highest quality: Sanda, Yamagata, Matsuzaka…in reality, Kobe is one more, but it has become the most famous thanks to its position as an important commercial port (it was one of the first to open to the West during the Meiji Revolution (translator’s note: actually before the Revolution, in 1868)). “200 years ago, hundreds of Europeans and Americans came to the port. They were fascinated by the flavor, and when they returned they began to speak about this fantastic discovery. It all began there.”

The massages and the beer? “Oh, yes, all that is true. They drink half a liter of beer per day, sometimes including wine, and they are massaged one to two hours daily with sake. That way, the meat is more tender and delicious. But they don’t get drunk! They just get a little sleepy.” Inoue laughs between gesticulations. Astonishing. On the menu, the best beefsteak, 250 grams, accompanied by vegetables, costs 15,000 yen (some 90 euros).

But something doesn’t fit. “Have you visited the farms?” “No, but I’ve seen them several times on television.” Mmmm. After leaving the restaurant, my suspicions grew. The restaurant is situated on the second floor of the Mosaic commercial center, a walkable distance from the port and from a multicolor waterwheel with fantastic views of the 108 meter-tall Kobe Tower and Meriken Park, the site is ideal for those who don’t want to go deeper into the origin of this prime material…I must keep searching.

And if there is someplace one can learn the truth, it should be in the Kitano neighborhood, where the residences of foreign diplomats, very open to the public, were built at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Along Kitanozaka Street, which rises to Mount Dotoku, the locals can visit art galleries, have lunch in jazz clubs, and buy clothing in delicate boutiques. It’s a residential area with a refined European air very appreciated by the Japanese.

The Wokoku, which has specialized in Kobe meat since 1973, can easily go unnoticed at one of the entrances to the street. Its chef, Kensuke Sakata, speaks very seriously. Not a word of English. His assistant’s digital translator saves us. “They don’t drink beer or listen to music. No massages either – only with a brush, for cleanliness. It’s simply the race of the livestock, its DNA, and its diet: dry grass, wheat grains, barley, and mineral water.” Straightforward and emphatic. He stays silent, expecting a reaction from this revolution. “Do you want to try it?” How could I refuse?

He serves two thick slices of authentic Kobe beef in tataki: raw, though lightly cooked on the edges. I need only dip them in a soy, vinegar, and ginger sauce. It slips on the palate like ice cream. Succulent. But this is still not the best part. Sakata prepares two beefsteaks teppanyaki style – over a metal sheet – accompanied with fine vegetables. A pair of minutes, salt, and pepper. Each slice melts when bitten and detonates rivers of juice in the mouth. Pure and delicious butter. It will be impossible to be content with European beef, which is like the sole of a shoe.

Upon leaving, I wait for the painful bill. “It’s on the house,” says Sakata, and he smiles for perhaps the first time. The pieces are beginning to come together. But I still need final verification. Only two corners away, Yiro Yamada has spent half a century in front of Aragawa, a small family restaurant and the most renowned in the city. Upon entering the door, one penetrates a very personal Japan: walls lined with dark wood, low tables, a chimney, a coal oven, and a comforting hospitality.

Of Farmers
Yamada, 79 years of age, eagerly awaits the question. He knows what’s coming. “Beer?” He bursts out laughing. “It would be better if we’d said champagne, don’t you think? It’s all a lie; there’s no secret. The difference is in the mineral water they drink, directly from the mountains, and in their diet. Nothing more.” The story began some years ago and was fed by the secretiveness of the farmers. Each one employed his own technique. Even so, all have to comply with strict regulations to receive certification as livestock raised in Hyogo Prefecture (whose capital is Kobe), a female or castrated male butchered by a prefectural butcher and with a determined and demanding level of quality and fat.

Local meat production is weak. Of the 1.2 million heads butchered each year in Japan, only 5000 (0.4%) are from Kobe. The amount exported is insignificant, which means the price is doubled in Europe or the United States. And the great demand in the domestic market makes it difficult to find the genuine item. “It’s a brand. Some butchers pick good product from other regions and put the Kobe stamp on it. It’s like French wine: there are many prices and colors.” As Yamada bids me farewell, one of his two sons kneads bread, and the other lights the oven for a banquet that night.

The truth has brought me peace, and we finish the day with a walk at the port. I’m tempted to return to Inoue, the cheerful Sandaya chef, and comment on his answers. We decide to get closer. When we arrive, the restaurant is packed, but Inoue gives us a few minutes. He listens patiently, with a naughty expression, and in telegram English that he could have prepared years before says “one story, many answers.” He smiles and melts into the crowd, the noise, and the plates brimming with Kobe beef.

Some Kobe Beef Restaurants
» Aragawa (0081 07 82 21 85 47). 15-18, 2-Chome Nakayamate Chuo-ku. Some 160 euros.
» Ooi (0081 07 83 51 10 11; 2-5. Motoko Town. 7-2-5 Motomachi-dori. 60 euros.
» Wakkoqu (0081 07 82 22 06 78; 1-22-13, Nakayamate-dori. 60 euros.
» Misono (0081 07 83 31 28 90; 1-1-2 Higashimon-dori. 50 euros.

Explore posts in the same categories: Cuisine, Japan, Translations

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