Kobe Beef: Its Origin and Foreign Prestige

Kobe beef is considered the epitome of fine dining, as it is renowned for its superior flavor, tenderness, and perfectly distributed fat that gives it its famous marbled appearance. Originally it comes from the Tajima-gyu breed of cattle found in Japan’s Hyōgo Prefecture, of which Kobe is the capital and the meat’s namesake. It is this geographical factor that can be attributed to having produced this beef as the mountainous terrain isolated the region where ranchers could no longer breed the Wagyu with other types of cattle. Instead, they were able to selectively breed a species that was genetically predisposed to the marbling that Kobe beef has become synonymous with. Along with the herd isolation, distinctive feeding techniques are also said to have led to unique differences in the taste and texture of the beef. The treatment of the cattle and the secrets behind achieving the quality of Kobe beef seem kept under secrecy by the Japanese ranchers but there are particular stories that have surfaced that have reached an almost urban legend status. The first being that the cows are given beer to induce appetite. The second is that in addition to this special diet, they are massaged daily as a substitute for exercise. While there is no hard evidence to suggest that any of these techniques improve flavor or texture, they certainly give the imagery of the cows living opulent lifestyles, adding to the decadence of Kobe beef.

Premium Kobe beef with a "chrysanthemums stamp" proving its authenticity

Premium Kobe beef with a “chrysanthemums stamp” proving its authenticity

With its reputation for excellence, it is unsurprising that the popularity of Kobe beef has extended past the borders of Japan. In the past, however, there have been strict laws that prohibited the export of any Japanese Wagyu cattle. Hence, despite what many restaurants claim to be Kobe beef on their menus, it is disappointingly not the meat that fulfills the strict lineage of Tajima-gyu or to the standards of excellence to actually be considered true Kobe beef. In fact, “the American distributor of Kobe beef is Freemont Beef Co. of Freemont, Neb. Laun Hinkle, Fremont’s sales manager, insists restaurant goers should ask to see proof of authenticity before ordering any meat described on the menu as ‘Kobe beef’.”(Daley, Chicago Tribune) So why are people willing to go to such lengths and pay exorbitant amounts of money to find real Kobe beef? According to Hinkle, “the Japanese have done an excellent job of marketing it like caviar and high-end wines. Also there’s a very, very limited supply, only about 3,000 animals a year.”(Daley) In fact, it is this rarity of the meat and the strict monopoly Japan has on exporting its cattle that has made it so prestigious outside of Japan and has prompted it to become a delicacy. Additionally, the lore of Kobe beef is what makes it special as the stories surrounding its production give it an air of mystery while additionally ensuring that no other rancher can mimic exactly the techniques needed to achieve such a high quality meat. It is precisely in the lengthy and rich lineage of the cattle, the mystery of the treatment of these cows, and the sheer scarcity of the meat that illustrates the prestige and popularity of the beef and makes Kobe beef such a treasured cuisine both within and beyond Japan’s borders.

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