What is Kobe Beef?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

Kobe beef is considered by many to be the best form of beef available in the world, although it is prohibitively expensive and importation from Japan is virtually impossible. Gourmet chefs prize Kobe beef for its tenderness, flavor and amount of intramuscular fat, called marbling. Heavy marbling gives steak its satisfying mouthfeel, and many cuts of Kobe beef are graded several categories about USDA Prime because of this. While some restaurants are permitted to sell a 'Kobe-style' beef product, only a strain of cattle called wagyu slaughtered in the Kobe region of Japan can be called Kobe beef.

Wagyu cattle producing Kobe beef must be processed in the Kobe region of Japan.
Wagyu cattle producing Kobe beef must be processed in the Kobe region of Japan.

The story of Kobe beef begins with the importation of wagyu cattle into the isolated Kobe region. These cattle were brought in as work animals to aid with rice harvesting. Because the region was so isolated, however, these original wagyu cattle were not transferred for work in other regions of Japan.

Slices of Kobe beef.
Slices of Kobe beef.

The wagyu cattle bloodlines eventually developed some unique genetic characteristics, such as the abundance of marbling. Because these wagyu cattle cannot exercise on the limited Japanese pasturelands, workers massage their muscles to prevent soreness and loss of appetite. Believing that a soft skin produces more tender meat, Kobe beef ranchers also rub the wagyu cattle's hides with sake, a Japanese rice wine.

Grilled Kobe beef.
Grilled Kobe beef.

The one essential rule concerning Kobe beef is that the wagyu cattle must be slaughtered in the Kobe region of Japan. Because of a severe shortage of available land, Japanese beef growers have allowed a select group of international cattlemen to raise wagyu cattle in their native countries. The cattle must be transported back to Kobe, Japan for final processing, however.

Skillets are the preferred way of cooking Kobe beef.
Skillets are the preferred way of cooking Kobe beef.

This situation has caused some frustration among restaurateurs who wish to obtain Kobe beef outside of Japan. Although wagyu cattle can be seen wandering the open fields of the western United States, they remain the property of Japanese beef growers. A hybrid of wagyu and American Angus beef can be purchased legally, but pure Kobe beef is not legally exported from Japan.

Sake is rubbed on the cattle from which Kobe beef comes.
Sake is rubbed on the cattle from which Kobe beef comes.

Those who have tasted Kobe beef have either praised it as the best meat in the world or have questioned the hype surrounding it. Some say it's a matter of proper preparation. Steaks cut from Kobe beef are said to have more of a foie gras or liver consistency, akin to a filet mignon. Kobe beef can be prepared as an ingredient in stir fry dishes, with high heat creating a quick sear. Many shabu-shabu restaurants also offer slices of raw Kobe beef to customers, who cook it lightly in steaming pots of water. A Kobe beef steak should never be served above medium-rare for maximum flavor. The preferred method is to preheat a cast-iron skillet and sear the meat quickly on both sides, leaving the middle just slightly warm.

Whether or not Kobe beef is worth its considerable price is a matter of debate. There are critics who suggest that the Angus breed of cattle is no guarantee of quality, either. Individual wagyu cattle strains can vary in quality and amount of marbling.

When compared to the United States meat ratings of Select, Choice or Prime, most Kobe beef is ranked at least two grades higher than Prime, a special grade the Japanese call Platinum. Some Kobe beef growers based in the United States have recently begun a program which would allow certain restaurateurs to purchase limited quantities of pure wagyu beef. If the market for Kobe beef proves profitable for the growers, it may become possible for Americans to sample it without the need to visit Japan.

The cows and bulls used to make real Kobe beef must be born and raised in the Kobe region of Japan.
The cows and bulls used to make real Kobe beef must be born and raised in the Kobe region of Japan.
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments

anon996147

The kobe meat is tender because the poor animals get no exercise. The best beef you can buy is Aberdeen Angus or Aberdeen Angus X Hereford which has been naturally reared with the calves having mothers milk until weaning then spending the next 2 years on good quality natural grassland that has not been sprayed with weed killer. This contains all the natural herbs which give the meat its natural flavour. Not a profitable venture which is why it is difficult to find. I know because I produced my own.

anon990271

Give me a bison ribeye any day. it's naturally grass fed and has a great flavor without the cost of kobe.

anon989935

If it isn't imported, how do all you so called beef eaters figure you ate real Kobe beef? There is even a picture of a cow beside this story which says it must be born and raised in Kobe region of Japan to be real. So either the Japanese are lying or the writer is. My bet is the Japanese are telling the truth and the restaurants and whoever else says they are selling you Kobe beef are lying to give you a high price piece of fake Kobe beef. Money and greed will get anyone to lie for profit.

anon932965

Wagyu is worth it, but watch out for the price. While in Manila, I had a grade no. 8 steak (there are 12 grades -- the higher the number, the more marbled). It was about $45 US for ~8oz. It was by far the best steak I have ever had. Another person in our party had a grade 12 which was $125 for about ~4oz. I think the 8 was a little firmer and better, but judge for yourself.

By far, the best thing was how the restaurant (upon request took some of the fatty trimmings off the steaks and deep fried it). Obviously it seems like it'd be terrible for you, yet it was like the most incredible soft jerky or bite you could have -- and not the least bit fatty tasting. Maybe the best comparison is if you took the best bacon you can imagine and multiply that by 10! If you're in the Philippines, the place is called Melo's and I think they have two or three locations.

anon359731

Kobe beef is nothing special. I had a steak in Japan. I have had better steak at Applebee's.

anon359153

Wagyu is without a doubt the finest breed of cattle in the world. I do not care how much you age or whatever else you do to your Angus, it will never stack up to wagyu "Kobe".

The wagyu have a unique flavor that cannot be had with any other breed, and university studies have shown wagyu to have three times more unsaturated fat than typical breeds, so basically you get all the marbling without the guilt or bad health side effects. I have had Kobe in Japan and here in the USA. Like the other people said, even the wagyu burgers are extremely good.

anon338769

I recently vacationed 10 days in Japan with my sister and my husband called me every day asking me "did you try the Kobe beef yet?" I never had a chance to while I was there. But to his surprise, the morning of my departure, I picked up a small Kobe steak, which cost me about $100 USD, had them pack it on dry ice, then smuggled it in my check-in baggage (I was surprised they didn't catch it). I came back with it to San Francisco 10 hours later. My husband was so surprised and said it was the most delicious meat he has ever had in his life.

anon316941

I would try anything but kobe just sounds over hyped.

anon310377

I grew up on a ranch in Texas and did not eat much beef because it was our cash crop. Our cows ate grass during the warm months and the hay we grew and bailed. Texas beef is pretty high-grade. But I can't imagine any beef could be better than that from pampered wagyu cattle.

anon167679

I live in Spokane and just had dinner before the Elton John concert at The Wild Sage. I ordered the Kobe Beef hamburger. I was raised on family raised beef and i am hear to say I've never had a better burger. It was excellent! best hamburger I've ever had.

anon164394

@anon80312: i can imagine a lot of more boring jobs. Like massaging word and excel day in day out.

anon162530

I'd rather eat the beef and drink the beer, than eat the beef that drank the beer.

anon145252

To anon89217, while in Japan I have drank, in the same restaurant both sake wine and sake beer. Sake merely means that the liquor is obtained from rice.

anon134232

They feed them beer during winter periods where the animal's appetite decreases. Beer is for keeping the animal's appetite up. They brush the animal with sake to keep the coat nice because they believe a nice coat has indirect benefits such as cleanliness etc.

There is a difference between Angus or Kobe. When you put the Kobe beef in your mouth it melts. If you like that sort of thing, then Kobe is for you. I'm going to Japan tomorrow. Ha!

anon112385

they don't physically give them a daily rub down. there are machines that the cows lean against that knead out muscle knots and generally relax the cow, and no, kobe is definitely better than the next.

anon108228

Kobe, schmoby. As a beef producer, I can say that any beef that is fed properly, aged properly, cut right and cooked right is as good as the next, right down to the angus, hereford, simmental, charolais, or whatever.

anon89217

Who are you to say that this is wrong and they don't massage the beef? do you know anything about beef farming? And sake is a wine, not a beer.

anon88412

Just ate a kobe burger at monster burger in Tampa. It was very good! I would like to know the fat content, since the article says it's very marbled meat.

anon85425

i found this article very interesting.

anon84071

they don't actually message the cows; this is false. they are normally kept in crates and the farmers wipe the dirt off once in awhile, which has been spread as messaging. they give them beer to stop them from dying too early.

anon80312

who the hell wants to massage cows?

anon80311

i am getting hungry.

anon77852

awesome.

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