Kobe is the capital of Hyogo prefecture and is one of Japan’s ten largest cities. It might not be as well-known as its Kansai neighbors, Osaka and Kyoto, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less attractive. Situated between both mountains and sea, Kobe is one of Japan’s most cosmopolitan cities. The city was one of the first in Japan to be opened to international foreign trade in the 19th century. The main thing that attracts most people to Kobe is the world-renowned Kobe beef, arguably the best in the world. So, here’s some background information that you (probably) didn’t know about Kobe beef.
Common Misconceptions About Japanese Kobe Beef
“The cows listen to classical music like Elgar, Mozart, and Bach while they eat!”
“They have massages daily with sake to increase the marbling of the meat!”
“They’re given beer to increase their appetite!”
I’m sure when talking about the famous Japanese Kobe beef with your friends, some of these statements have been mentioned. Disappointingly, although these rumors create quite the image in one’s head, there is no evidence to suggest any of these techniques are used, or that they improve the texture, yield a high degree of marbling, or enhance the flavor of the Kobe beef itself.
A Brief History of Kobe Beef
Kobe beef is one of several breeds of wagyu (an umbrella term for domestic Japanese beef), and arguably the most well-known internationally. It is made from purebred Tajima cattle which have a high concentration of soft fat marbling throughout the meat. This fat has a low melting point which when cooked, results in some of the most tender and juicy melt-in-your-mouth meat that is highly desired across the world. The cows were first introduced as work cattle used for rice cultivation and agriculture around the 2nd century. And although Kobe beef has been around for centuries, this brand of wagyu only really started to gain international popularity in the 1980s and 1990s.
Wagyu vs. Kobe Beef
So, what is the difference between wagyu and Kobe beef? Both are frequently used to reference some of the highest quality meat available, but they aren’t the same thing.
Wagyu is a term used to refer to Japanese cattle, and that means any type of Japanese cattle. Wagyu is not a breed in its own right, contrary to popular belief, and it also doesn’t have any relevance to quality. When someone references “wagyu steak” or “wagyu beef” it simply means meat from a Japanese cow.
There are four breeds of Japanese cow: Japanese Shorthorn, Japanese Black, Japanese Brown, and Japanese Poll. Japanese Black strains of cattle include Tajima, Tottori, and Okayama, which make up 90 percent of all fattened cattle in Japan.
Only the meat from Japanese Black Tajima-gyu breed of cattle, which originates from Kobe, that carries a full lineage and quality criteria can be qualified as Kobe beef. Due to this, all Kobe beef is classified as wagyu beef, but just a small proportion of wagyu beef is Kobe beef. Only 0.06 percent of beef consumed in Japan is Kobe beef.
Japanese Wagyu Beef Grading System
There is a grading system for wagyu beef which, to the untrained eye, might not make any sense, but is used to categorize high-grade wagyu beef. There are two categories: yield grade and quality grade.
Wagyu Beef Yield Grade
The yield grade relates to the cutability of the wagyu beef. This refers to the proportion of meat that can be obtained from the cow such as loin, rib, and chuck.
Grade A: Above Standard
Grade B: Standard
Grade C: Below Standard
Wagyu Beef Quality Grade
The quality grade of Japanese wagyu beef is evaluated through four different categories: (1) the color and brightness of the meat, (2) the quality of the fat, (3) the marbling of fat, and (4) the firmness and texture. After these have been assessed, the wagyu beef is awarded a number in relation to its quality.
2: Below Average
Wagyu Beef Marble Score (BMS)
Along with the previous grading system, there is an additional score regarding the marbling of Japanese wagyu, for an even finer degree of accuracy, from 1-12.
5: Excellent (8 - 12)
4: Good (5 - 7)
3: Average (3 - 4)
2: Below Average (2)
1: Poor (1)
So, A5 wagyu with a BMS of 5-12 is the rarest and highest quality grade of beef you can get.
What are the Criteria for Kobe Beef?
For wagyu beef to be classified as real Kobe beef it must have a yield and quality score of A4 or A5 grade along with being born and raised in the Hyōgo Prefecture in Japan, a steer (castrated bull) or virgin cow and of the purebred Tajima lineage. It must have only been fed grasses and grains and slaughtered within the prefecture and have a gross carcass weight of 470kg or less.
After all of these requirements are met, it is assigned a 10-digit ID number so that its authenticity can be traced back to the individual cow when sold. Everything from its birth record, ownership, and genetic lineage can be traced via this ID number.
With all of these requirements, it’s no surprise that cuts of the famous Kobe beef are some of the most expensive meat in the world!
How is Kobe Beef Cooked?
Kobe beef is often cooked teppanyaki style, on a piping hot teppan. It can also be enjoyed as a classic Kobe steak, in a shabu shabu hot pot, as sashimi, or as sukiyaki (where thin slices of Kobe beef are quickly cooked in a Japanese broth and dipped in raw egg).
Notable Kobe Beef Restaurants in Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture
- Steak Aoyama
Mouriya is one of the most well-known restaurants in Kobe, offering A4 and A5 wagyu that's prepared right in front of the diner’s eyes. If you’re on a budget, they also offer some cheaper alternatives and have almost every cut available. Mouriya has five branches in total but they all get quite booked up and have limited availability so it’s best to make a reservation before you go.
2. Tor Road Steak Aoyama
This family-run restaurant has been around for over 53 years and there’s a reason for that; the quality of their Kobe beef is some of the best in town. The staff at Tor Road Steak Aoyama pay attention to the smallest of details and can speak fluent English.
3. Aragawa Hyogo
Aragawa Hyogo has received a lot of recognition for its food and even won some awards. Their cuisine is primarily western, but with a Japanese flair. They carefully select the most high-class Kobe beef there is and if you are beefed out (if there is such a thing) they are also very particular about their seafood, too. If you are on a budget, however, this might not be the place for you as the price tag can get quite high.