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Kobe Beef – Between myth and legend…

What is a legend? Once, I read that, “A legend is a tale that people tell as if it were a true story. The exact details are often difficult to maintain, but what always stays the same is the place where the event occurred, and those who experienced it.”

As we are ourselves about to divulge such a tale here, let us begin with where it all began… This particular myth takes place in a region of Japan, surrounded by beautiful natural landscapes (including Mount Rokko, famed throughout the land for its mineral water).

Once upon a time, there was a commercial capital and international port in Hyogo Prefecture. This capital was (and is) the elder and younger sister city of Seattle, USA since 1957, Marseille, France since 1961, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil since 1969, Riga, Latvia since 1974, Brisbane, Australia since 1985, Barcelona,Spain since 1993, Faisalabad, Pakistan since 2000, Haifa, Israel in 2004 and Incheon in South Korea since 2010…

The city was recognized for its pearl industry, fine cuisine and local produce. Among its famous local products, one has particularly established itself as its own legend, and can even be seen as a relic of the gastronomical world: this product is Kobe beef.

What any legend about arguably the most mythical meat in gastronomy cannot possibly express, however, is its remarkable taste and texture, lauded by gourmets worldwide. Indeed, the story of Kobe beef and its origins has long evolved in popular folklore…

The term “wagyu” comes from a Japanese compound word for a certain breed of cows: “wa” (Japan) and “gyu” (cow). It refers to several strains of cattle breeds originating from Japan. Due to the unique geography and terrain of the environment, they were raised in, these animals came to develop certain specific traits as a result of  their locale. True hereditors of their environment, the isolation in which the animals have been bred since the feudal age is a guarantee of their incontestable purity. In the beginning, they were cultivated for their strength and weight in aiding agricultural labor. Today, they are fattened intensively to develop muscular mass, in order to be consumed. Cows of this species can possess red or black hides – those from Kobe are most frequently black. Their average weight is around 600 kg, and their silhouette is of a massive shape with a high neckline. According to the Geneological Book of Bovine Species, it is estimated that the Wagyu breed has been recognized since 1830 in Europe. It has been bred toward purposes of consumption in Japan since the 1950s.

It is a creature which exists between myth and legend…

I myself have even been told that Wagyu cows are massaged with sake by sumowrestlers… However, a simpler conclusion, perhaps is somewhat closer to reality, would be that the most prized and refined species of Wagyu cows are indeed regularly subjected to massages by breeders, who play the animals classical music and add beer to their water.

But enough! … Let us attempt to remain steady in our task as our legend unfolds, and stay true to the definition that “exact details are often difficult to maintain, but what always stays the same is where the event occurred, and those who experienced it.”

What we can undoubtedly recognize is the fact that the maintenance of a strict provenance and origin in the quality of livestock necessitates certain measures, including a protein-rich diet, in which malt or beer may be added to fodder and personal attention is given to the care of each animal. Such care may even take the form of techniques closely resembling relaxation therapies, all to encourage the animals’ well being. Only around the age of a year and a half, during the slaughtering season are handlers and veterinarians occupied with the task of evaluating the animals according to the standards of the prestigious Kobe beef appellation. It is here again we find ourselves at the intersection of myth, legend, and truth…

Wagyu beef is certainly the most famous existing type of beef. Its delicate hint of parsley is a result of the growth of intramuscular fat, situated within rather than around the muscles. This indeed is also the source of the beef’s incomparable tinge of butter. In addition to its extraordinarily tender texture and flavor, it also possesses the virtue of being lower in cholesterol and saturated fats than other beef varieties.

There are various ways to enjoy Kobe beef according to personal preference or taste. What will follow here is by no means an exhaustive list of the many creative means by which Kobe beef can be prepared, but rather, a simple inventory of the classic ways in which it is served.

Firstly, Kobe beef can be eaten like sashimi – that is to say, raw. It is presented on a bed of onions, cold to the point that it is almost frozen. It is eaten with fresh garlic and dipped in soy sauce. While it may seem surprising or confusing to eat frozen beef at first, once it meets the heat of the mouth the flesh melts and releases its full, retained flavor.

As an entree, the meat is simply seasoned with salt before being pan-fried or roasted, and is served with garlic butter: a combination of softened butter, crushed garlic, tarragon, salt, and pepper.

Before being cooked, the beef can also be marinated in a chili sauce with honey, sesame oil, rice vinegar, coriander, ginger, and garlic.

For connoisseurs of prime rib, the beef must be seasoned with salt and pepper in a cast iron casserole, which is then put into the oven to be broiled from all sides. Then, it should be placed in the an oven preheated to a high temperature and baked between 8 to 15 minutes, depending on the thickness of the slice. Do not succumb to temptation and allow the beef to rest in the oven for as long as the 8 to 15 minutes recommended, however! Extra care must be taken so that the meat is served rare and the fat crispy. Ideally it is accompanied with boiled potatoes fried au-gratin, preferably without added sauces. Allowing the taste of the meat to remain unhindered as the focus of the dish makes it a delight for the senses.

In some respects, it is unusual to speak as much about meat as we have in Japanese cuisine, as, in fact, the history of meat consumption in Japan is a recent one.

Japan as a country is surrounded by the sea, and consists of four main islands. Size, location and population all are crucial factors in ensuring that a certain percentage of the food consumed within the country comes from Japanese fisheries, operating within  the local network of Japanese rivers and seas. This is also the main reason for the Japanese culinary art of preparing raw fish as sashimi or sushi. One other major factor to consider is Buddhism. Buddhism has in fact long governed the way of life in Japan for people down to dietary specifications. The embrace of vegetarianism has been celebrated both as spiritual philosophy and lifestyle for for hundreds of years.

So where does the tradition of preparing meat come from in Japan?

It is said that it is thanks to the Americans that Japanese farmers were introduced to the practice of eating meat, which came with the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry during the Edo period (1853). The commodore claimed to bring a message of friendship from President Franklin Pierce to the Emperor of Japan. This sudden foreign presence lent itself to great influence on the cultivation of cattle, then first raised for slaughter in order to satisfy the carnal appetite of these strange visitors. Previously, these animals were bred simply for milk production, their value in domestic and agricultural labor in everyday farmwork, or as a means of transport.

These changes in lifestyles and modes of consumption were further spread during the  Meiji Era (1868 – 1912), when sukiyaki became a very popular dish, in which beef and raw vegetables are dipped in a boiling sauce of warishita mirin, sake, shoyu and sugar. In addition to this trend, and supported by the country’s rapid economic growth and agricultural industrialization, Japan came to develop several domestic varieties of cattle including the Japanese Black, Japanese Brown, Japanese Polled, and the Japanese Shorthorn. It was at this moment that the quality and tradition of excellence in cattle breeding would lead to the development of Kobe beef: delight of delights.

The Japanese culinary arts has gained such international resonance with the reputation of its fine traditional cuisine, that its recognition spans centuries. It has been developed and refined over the years through the meticulous attention to detail placed at the center of all preparatory aspects: the elaborate dishes are crafted through the scrupulous assessment of seasonal produce, as well as dietary composition, in order to achieve perfect harmony. Last but not least, it is the aesthetic consistency of the dish which takes center focus, with unequalled attention given to the quality of dishware. This final touch is what truly elevates it to the status of high culture.

Between myths and legend: the Japanese culinary arts, of which Kobe beef is a part, is itself a veritable gold mine for the senses. Let us awaken…

Sanza Bulaya

Translation – Ritz Wu