By Gwyneth Doland
Most people have never heard of Kobe beef. Those vaguely familiar with the stuff may have heard stories of cattle treated like rich ladies on vacation: getting gentle massages while listening to soothing music, having exfoliating sake scrubs, and drinking beer all afternoon. Why in the world would anyone bother to pamper cattle like that? Because the lavish marbling of Kobe beef makes it the most mouth-watering, most drool-inducing and most expensive steak in the world. Now American farmers are producing Kobe-style beef and this meaty delicacy is starting to find a place on more and more American plates.
When Mad Cow disease was confirmed in Japan in 2001, all beef imports to the U.S. were banned. Although we had been importing a very small amount of beef from Japan, most of it was Kobe. So the ban caused a serious, if small, hole in the market. American producers caught on and caught up, raising their own version of the elite meat.
The Kobe-style beef made in America is most correctly called Wagyu, or American Kobe-style beef, a distinction that is important to the Japanese, but mostly lost on American consumers. Technically speaking, Kobe beef comes from a particular breed of cattle-Wagyu-raised in a particular region in Japan, of which Kobe is the capital. All true Kobe beef comes from Wagyu cattle-but not all Wagyu cattle become Kobe beef. This is exactly the same sort of distinction that makes French Champagne more special than "sparkling wine" and a wheel of real Parmigiano Reggiano more valuable than a green can of parmesan.
Cattle were first used in Japan as plow-pullers thousands of years ago. Carefully bred for strength and endurance, they developed lots of intra-muscular fat to use for energy. Ironically, in that isolated, mountainous area, generations of breeding sturdy draught animals resulted in the most delicious beef that many of those folks probably rarely, if ever, tasted. (The mostly poor and Buddhist farmers wouldn't have considered raising cattle for meat, even if the practice hadn't been banned by Japanese emperors for more than a millennium.) Today, in both countries, limited Wagyu stock means that Wagyu bulls are most often bred with females from another breed, like Black Angus, but their genes are so strong that the massive marbling comes through.
Mark Hoegh, who designs the feeding programs for Kobe Beef America, an Oregon-based Wagyu producer, says feeding is about 30 percent responsible for the quality of the meat. But that 30 percent still means a lot. "You can either ruin that animal or you can make the highest Kobe quality by how he's fed," Heogh explains. Like their Japanese counterparts, American Wagyu producers raise their cattle on a diet of grass and grains that promotes slow, steady growth. Much of the extra expense of their meat comes from the extra time they have invested in the cattle. Whereas most regular cattle are harvested between 16 and 18 months of age; most American Wagyu are harvested between 24 and 26 months; and most Kobe beef comes from cattle fed longer than that, up to 4 or 5 years. "It's like a fine wine," Heogh says, "you can't rush this product."
The USDA grades beef based on tenderness, juiciness and flavor using eight labels, only four of which you'll ever see in a market: Prime, Choice, Select and Standard. About 2 percent of American beef qualifies as Prime; it is sold almost exclusively to high-end restaurants and specialty stores. By contrast, Heough says 98 percent of his meat is graded Prime.
The Japanese Beef Marbling Score system goes far beyond the USDA's. To assess quality, the BMS system scores meat from 1 through 12, with 12 being the best and rarest. A high-quality piece of Japanese Kobe beef usually scores about 10; USDA's Prime translates roughly to a 5. But that doesn't mean that a regular steak and a Wagyu steak that both score 5 will taste the same. "Wagyu fat has a higher level of monounsaturated fat which has a very buttery flavor," Heough says.
Confused yet? There's more. Kobe Beef America has two labels for their meat. The "Ultimate" label goes on anything cut that scores a 7 or above; "Platinum" is plastered on anything that scores 6 or below, but 95 percent of Platinum cuts score either 5 or 6. Other purveyors advertise cuts that score only 9 or above, at a much higher price, of course.
If you buy Wagyu beef to cook at home, remember to keep it simple and cook it medium-rare. Oh, and be sure to stock up on napkins because it's gonna be one juicy steak.Thai-Marinated Grilled Wagyu Beef
This recipe is from the Kobe Beef America website. Serve over jasmine rice.
2 jalapeño chiles, seeds and stems removed, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon sambal (Thai red chile sauce, available in Asian markets)
4 shallots, peeled and roughly chopped
4 cloves garlic
1/4 cup honey
2 cups soy sauce
1 cup rice vinegar
Salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 New York Wagyu strip steaks (10 ounces each)
Combine the jalapenos, sambal, shallots, garlic and honey in a food processor and blend into a smooth paste. While the processor is running, slowly add the soy sauce and rice vinegar. Season with salt and pepper. The mixture can be made up ahead and stored in the refrigerator.
Pre-heat the grill. Quickly marinate steaks in the chile mixture for 5 to 10 minutes, turning to coat completely.
Grill the steaks to a medium rare, about 4 minutes a side. Let beef rest for 3 minutes before slicing into thin strips.
Yield: 4 servings
Heat Scale: Medium