What is Kobe Beef? A Guide to the World’s Most Prized Beef

Kobe beef is widely renowned as one of the most exquisite and prized types of beef in the world. But what exactly makes it so special? This comprehensive guide will explore the history, production, and characteristics that set Kobe beef apart.

A Brief History of Kobe Beef

  • Cattle were first brought to Japan from China around the 2nd century AD during the Yayoi period. They were used as work animals for agriculture and transport rather than for meat production.

  • Meat consumption was relatively low in Japan until the Meiji Restoration in 1868 when foreign cattle breeds were introduced, leading to cross-breeding with native stock.

  • Between 1900-1910 there was extensive cross-breeding between foreign cattle and native Japanese cattle. This resulted in “Improved Japanese Cattle” which were recognized as four distinct breeds in 1944 – Japanese Black, Japanese Brown, Japanese Polled and Japanese Shorthorn.

  • The Tajima strain of the Japanese Black breed accounts for around 90% of the improved breeds today.

  • Kobe beef grew in popularity after World War II and gained wider international recognition in the 1980s and 1990s as an exceptionally high-quality type of beef.

What Makes Kobe Beef Special?

There are several key factors that contribute to the premium quality of genuine Kobe beef:

Ultra-Marbled Texture

  • Extensive marbling where the fat is finely interspersed with lean meat is the hallmark of Kobe beef. This contributes to its renowned tenderness and rich, buttery flavor.

  • The fat has a lower melting point, meaning it melts at a lower temperature in the mouth, giving an exceptionally soft, smooth texture.

Genetics and Pedigree

  • Authentic Kobe beef comes from Tajima-gyu or Tajima cattle, a purebred strain of Japanese Black cattle raised to strict protocols in Hyogo prefecture.

  • The cattle can be traced back to the region and even to individual farms thanks to Japan’s meticulous beef tracing system.

Specialized Feeding

  • The cattle are fed a balanced diet including grains, rice straw and grass which promotes marbling.

  • Their feed is monitored, and they are brushed and massaged to produce finely marbled beef.

Humane Treatment

  • Tajima cattle are raised in a low-stress environment with ample space to roam freely. This minimizes muscle strain and further enhances marbling.

  • Their humane treatment also promotes gentle temperaments, which is believed to improve meat quality.

The Difference Between Kobe Beef and Wagyu Beef

While the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, there are some important distinctions between Kobe beef and Wagyu beef:

  • Wagyu simply means “Japanese cattle.” It refers to several Japanese cattle breeds.

  • Kobe beef is a more specific designation that denotes Tajima-gyu cattle raised to strict protocols in Hyogo prefecture.

  • Authentic Kobe beef must meet stringent criteria including qualifying marble score, meat quality, yield grade and origin in Hyogo prefecture. Not all Wagyu meets the criteria for Kobe beef.

  • There are also several other famous regional Wagyu brands such as Matsusaka beef and Omi beef that are separate from Kobe beef.

  • Kobe beef is typically more expensive, with cuts sold for $200-500 per pound compared to $50-150 per pound for Wagyu.

Grading Kobe Beef

Kobe beef is graded by licensed inspectors according to several metrics:

  • Marbling – High degree of fine marbling, rated 6 or higher on 12 point scale.

  • Meat quality – Color, brightness, firmness and texture rated 4-5 on 5 point scale.

  • Yield grade – Amount of usable meat rated A or B.

  • Beef fat color – White fat indicating health of cattle.

Only beef meeting the highest standards can qualify as authentic Kobe beef.

How Kobe Beef is Prepared and Served

Due to its exquisite marbling, Kobe beef requires little extra fat or seasoning when cooking:

  • It can be prepared simply as steak, often seared and cooked rare to medium rare to avoid overcooking the fat. A light seasoning of salt and pepper is generally used.

  • Other common cooking methods are sukiyaki, shabu shabu, teppanyaki and sashimi style.

  • When served in Japan, it typically comes with soy sauce and wasabi, either as an entree or in small slices as an appetizer.

  • At fine restaurants, it is presented with great care to highlight its beautiful marbling. Master chefs bring out the beef’s maximum flavor, tenderness and texture.

The Availability and Cost of Genuine Kobe Beef

Authentic Kobe beef is highly prized for its strict quality controls and exceptional eating experience. However, availability is extremely limited:

  • Only about 3000 cattle qualify as certified Kobe beef per year.

  • Kobe beef is only produced in the Hyogo prefecture of Japan. It was not exported until 2012.

  • Exports are tightly controlled, with limited quantities exported to Macau, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand and the US.

  • Due to scarcity and worldwide demand, certified Kobe beef can cost from $200 up to $500 per pound.

  • Outside Japan, be wary of “Kobe-style” beef which does not meet the certified Kobe beef criteria.

Trying genuine Japanese Kobe beef is a rare treat and culinary experience. Its exquisite marbling and buttery texture have made it one of the most sought-after meats worldwide. Ask your local high-end restaurants if they have certified Kobe beef on the menu or keep an eye out for this exclusive delicacy when traveling in Asia.

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What is so special about Kobe beef?

Kobe beef boasts a distinct and captivating flavor profile that sets it apart from other types of beef. Its hallmark is an exquisite marbling of intramuscular fat, which contributes to its exceptional tenderness and a rich, buttery texture. Its flavor is best described as sweet and lean.

Why is Kobe beef so expensive?

The cattle are fed on grain fodder and brushed sometimes for setting fur. The melting point of fat of Kobe beef (Tajima cattle) is lower than common beef fat. Kobe beef is expensive, partly because only about 3,000 head of cattle may qualify as Kobe per year.

What is better Wagyu or Kobe beef?

wagyu beef, neither will be a disappointment, but it is true that Kobe beef, with its even higher level of standards for production, has a creamier flavor that truly melts in your mouth. Because Kobe beef must meet such strict quality requirements, you can be sure that it really is the best of the best.

Is Kobe beef allowed in the US?

There is only one true Kobe Beef. In addition to impressive quality standards for raising it, there are tightly controlled standards for selling it. Today, there are only 8 US retailers authorized to sell this rare, premium product, and only 37 US restaurants have the certification to serve it.

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