Prime Time: What Makes Wagyu and Kobe Beef Special
The instant you taste genuine Kobe beef, you’ll understand that it’s special—and its scarcity makes it an essential indulgence for any visit to Japan.
Granted, on U.S. restaurant menus the beef descriptors Wagyu and Kobe are as common as “pasture raised” or “sustainably farmed.” But they are relatively hollow terms that aren’t subject to any standard or specific U.S. regulation. They’re used simply to draw your eye and a few extra dollars from your wallet, because genuine, top-grade Japanese beef has only been exported to the U.S. since 2012—and only a few thousand pounds of it per month at that. In Japan, meat is subject to serious standards: no bovine bum steer. There’s no misrepresenting—much less mistaking—a top-dollar steak.
Before you seek one out, though, it’s important to understand what constitutes high-grade Japanese beef. That requires understanding the terminology, starting with Wagyu. Wagyu literally translates to “Japanese cow.” That’s it. There are only four recognized Wagyu breeds (Kuroge, Akage, Nihon Tankaku and Mukaku) raised in any of 10 specific prefectures—one of them being Hyōgo, home to the city of Kobe. So Kobe beef is, basically, the top grade of Wagyu raised near Kobe.
So what makes Kobe beef special? That requires a quick primer on top-grade Wagyu in general, which will help explain why the meat is worth the expense. We’re talking a cost of $100 or more per pound to the restaurant before the meat’s ever cooked and served to you. But you’ll taste the difference instantly.
Why Wagyu tastes otherworldly
Whether it’s floating in your ramen or shaped into a burger patty, most beef you eat in Japan is actually American. Japan is one of the biggest importers of U.S. beef, in fact. So finding high-end Wagyu or even Kobe beef requires a little effort.
All Wagyu breeds, including those raised in Kobe, were developed over centuries for their endurance, realized in the form of extra intramuscular fat cells. That’s evident when you see a highly prized steak, with its pink color and even fat marbling. The fat is what makes the meat taste so buttery and feel so tender.
All that fat is unsaturated, which means it liquifies at room temperature. In other words, a high-grade Wagyu steak literally melts in your mouth!
All Wagyu, whether raised in Kobe or elsewhere, is held to the same strict standards. At 10 months of age, the cows are auctioned to fattening farms, where they’re fed a pristine, high-energy diet for two years. After that time, the cows are approximately 50% fat; a USDA Prime steak, by contrast, is only about 10-13% fat.
In Japan, if you see it on a menu as Kobe beef, it’s the real deal—a Wagyu breed raised on a Kobe farm. On top of that, the specific cow—which was assigned a unique 10-digit ID at birth to ensure provenance—received one of the top three possible grades based on the quality of marbling in its meat. The highest grades are A3, A4, and A5.
It’s rarefied company: Only a few thousand cows among the more than 2 million raised in Japan each year achieve an A3-A5 grade—and in the case of Kobe-raised Wagyu, only A3- to A5-graded cows can actually be marketed and sold as Kobe beef.
Tracking down a top-grade Kobe steak
One of the best ways to find authentic Kobe beef in Japan is to scour food blogs for the best teppanyaki restaurants in whatever town you’re visiting. Teppanyaki are better known in America as hibachi—the large, steel, flat-top grills. But teppanyaki in Japan are all about serious, precise cooking, not theatrics or airborne shrimp. The meal will be multicourse, featuring seafood and vegetables as well as beef.
A Kobe steak will comprise about $120 or more of your overall tab—but it’ll be the most memorable course by far. The steak is seasoned only with salt and pepper; it’s cooked in just a bit of neutral oil on the flat top, and it’s sliced and served medium rare. While you may be asked how you like your steak cooked, the smart play is to leave it in the hands of the pro.
Another way to enjoy a serious steak is to seek out a restaurant that serves katsu sando—basically a panko-encrusted and deep-fried A3-A5 Wagyu cutlet served on white bread. This ethereal, bucket-list steak sandwich will set you back as much as $200 if it’s made using Kobe beef, but naysayers are in short supply. You’ll find the best katsu sando by searching food blogs, since some restaurants only serve them on request to diners in the know.
The katsu sando has caught on in the U.S., with some restaurants in New York and other major cities serving them using genuine imported Kobe beef. But if a visit to Japan is in your future, seek out the assuredly genuine article close to its home pasture. Few other experiences hit the trifecta of being uniquely Japanese, instantly memorable and worth every penny.