Pampered, massaged and $90 on your plate: The true story of Kobe beef

New York strip steak (left) next to  a four-ounce cut of Miyazaki beef

New York strip steak (left) next to a four-ounce cut of Miyazaki beef

On a cutting board at Oakland’s Ozumo restaurant lie two slabs of sirloin steak. They are identical in many respects. Both were taken from the loin, the most tender section of the cow.

But these cuts of beef are actually drastically different. One weighs eight ounces, a long and rectangular cut of meat with irregular white streaks of fat. The other is smaller, a mere four ounces, and square in shape. It looks like a work of art, with a pattern like an intricately designed piece of blown glass.

What is more, the difference between these two cuts of steak will cost the consumer a pretty penny. One is a regular piece of Choice New York strip steak, and the other is pretty special. Take one bite, and you’ll have entered the high-end world of Japanese Kobe and Miyazaki beef.

The flavor is so rich that the typical serving size is smaller than a regular steak. The fat on the steak itself also dissolves at a lower temperature than typical beef fat. So it literally melts in your mouth.

Identical in many ways, these two slabs of beef at Ozumo restaurant are quite different.

Identical in many ways, these two slabs of beef at Ozumo restaurant are quite different.

The original Ozumo restaurant opened in San Francisco off the Embarcadero in 2001, with the Oakland site near Lake Merritt opening last year. The Oakland restaurant’s interior is spacious and dimly lit, and at every turn diners are surrounded by Japanese décor. Coi-shaped lights are embedded in the walls and lit from the back, displaying a rainbow of colors. Buddha prints and statues act as backdrops in the private dining rooms. Walls are lined with bottles of sake. And the trickling sound of fountains makes the restaurant feel a Japanese tea garden, rather than a place to order a bottle of Sapporo and a tempura roll.

The luxury meat at Ozumo, which costs $90 for a four-ounce serving, was first introduced to the American market in 1991. Since its U.S. debut, American beef producers have started manufacturing Kobe-style beef as well.

But there’s an ocean of difference between the American product and its Japanese sibling. It’s unlikely that consumers know the difference, unless the restaurant managers put it on the menu. (They would do this out of courtesy, not obligation.) And a restaurant’s decision to serve one form of Kobe beef over the other usually comes down to cost. American-Kobe beef is often a third of the price of the real thing.

Japan’s Kobe and Miyazaki beef come from a breed of cattle called Wagyu—meaning “Japanese cow.” The purest, “true” Kobe beef comes only from the Hyogo prefecture, the Japanese region where the city of Kobe is located. Miyazaki beef comes from the same breed and is produced in the same way, but comes from the Miyazaki prefecture of Japan.

Wagyu cattle produce meat that has a high content of intramuscular fat, giving the meat a marbled appearance. The visibly high fat content can often “freak people out,” according to Kate Mead from Yoshi’s in Oakland. But it is mostly unsaturated fat.

Ozumo restaurant in Oakland serves Miyazaki steak, a beef similar to Kobe

Ozumo restaurant in Oakland serves Miyazaki steak, a beef similar to Kobe

Kobe and Miyazaki beef producers are secretive about their methods. But many ranchers in Japan feed beer to their livestock to induce appetite. They also massage cattle daily, sometimes with sake. According to Yo Matsuzaki, Ozumo’s executive chef, some Wagyu cattle listen to classical music, a method used to relax them.

“They are treated as kings,” Matsuzaki said with a smile.

Some have argued that limiting a cow’s movements and feeding it beer is far from the royal treatment, especially for an animal that likes to roam and prefers grass to beer. As for the massages, some say it is to relieve stress and relax the cow in order to maximize the marbling of the beef. It may also serve as a proxy for exercise, since Japan’s cramped quarters make it hard to allow cows to move about freely.

American-Kobe, on the other hand, is a cross between Wagyu cattle and Black Angus cattle. Yoshi’s in Oakland buys their American-Kobe from Snake River Farms, a 10-year-old company located in Idaho that specializes in American-Kobe beef production. According to the company’s website, they raise their cattle on a diet of Idaho potatoes, soft white wheat, corn and alfalfa hay. They skip the daily massages and bottles of beer.

In the end, American-Kobe beef is still marbled, but not to the degree of authentic Kobe and Miyazaki beef. The result is a steak with a lower fat content, but a less artistic look. That’s close enough for many Japanese restaurant patrons.

Yoshi's in Oakland uses American-Kobe, pictured above, in two of their appetizers

Yoshi's in Oakland uses American-Kobe, pictured above, in two of their appetizers

“In Oakland, there’s not really a market for real Kobe beef,” said Kyle Itani, sous chef at Yoshi’s in Oakland, explaining why the restaurant uses American-Kobe in two of their appetizers instead of the real thing. The Yoshi’s in San Francisco, which is located on the border of Japantown, however, will often serve Miyazaki beef.

The unique marbling of beef from pure Wagyu cattle is specific to that breed, Itani said. The Japanese Wagyu cow is the product of crossbreeding that took place more than 2,000 years ago, which mixed European cows with Japanese herds. Today, beef from Japanese Wagyu cattle in the Miyazaki region, which has the same mixed European and Japanese lineage, is often what is found in restaurants claiming to have Kobe, according to Itani.

Other than being from different regions, Kobe and Miyazaki meats are exactly the same. Itani speculated that export restrictions have made it difficult to purchase real Kobe beef in the states.

“Only a couple restaurants in the country serve Kobe beef, most restaurants serve Miyazaki beef,” Itani said. “Kobe beef has to be from the Kobe region of Japan, just like Champagne has to be from the Champagne region in France.”

Ozumo in Oakland serves Miyazaki beef. But on the menu, the beef is listed as “Kobe.” Matsuzaki, Ozumo’s executive chef said, that both Miyazaki and Kobe beef can be called Kobe beef since the style of cattle rearing and beef production started in Kobe and was then adopted in the Miyazaki region. And in the description of the $90 dish, it’s revealed that the meat is actually produced in Miyazaki. Nevertheless, the meat is expensive, delicious and hard to come by at restaurants in Oakland.

“We try to keep as much to tradition as we can,” Sterling said. “We want to promote a true Japanese experience.”

Ozumo employs four Japanese chefs in order to make that experience as authentic as possible. But it doesn’t take that many Japanese cooks in the kitchen to prepare one slab of Miyazaki beef. The preparation is next to nothing, and the quality of the beef really does most of the work, according to Matsuzaki.

“It is grilled (medium-rare) simply with salt and pepper,” Matsuzaki said, pausing. “I want people to really taste the beef.”

Yoshi's in Oakland uses American-Kobe beef in their dishes

Yoshi's in Oakland uses American-Kobe beef in their dishes

Matsuzaki is a slender Japanese man from Osaka who has been working for Ozumo for three years. He has a thick Japanese accent and insists his English is limited, though he forms his sentences perfectly. He pauses between thoughts and looks calm before speaking. “Japan is very proud of this beef. It’s slow-growing and sustainable. And it all started in Kobe,” he said.

Kobe’s rocky landscape restricted movement among cattle and provided isolation from random breeding. Once the initial breeding took place, further crossbreeding was nearly impossible, eventually generating a unique kind of meat.

“Japan Wagyu were work cattle, so they’re fairly large and muscular,” Itani said. “Japan is so landlocked in certain regions there are no pastures [for the cattle] to roam, so they developed natural marbling over time. And now they’ve just been bred and bred to where they’re marbled to the fullest extent.”

At Ozumo, sake bottles act as a backdrop for one of their bars. They hope to provide customers with an authentic Japanese experience, an impetus for buying the more expensive Japanese Kobe beef.

At Ozumo, sake bottles act as a backdrop for one of their bars. They hope to provide customers with an authentic Japanese experience, an impetus for buying the more expensive Japanese Kobe beef.

The Japanese weren’t always allowed to enjoy the taste of the special kind of animal. The production and consumption of beef was banned in Japan until 1868 because of the strong Buddhist influence on the culture. After the Mejii restoration with its emphasis on modernization, rules against beef consumption were lifted, but it took decades for the production of beef to gain momentum.

U.S. demand for Japanese beef grew rapidly once the USDA certified Japanese slaughterhouses and lifted import restrictions in the early 1990s. But with American producers beginning to successfully step into the market as alternative Kobe beef producers, the authentic import might start disappearing off menus. In addition, American consumers’ new interest in local grass-fed beef may curtail the demand for the luxury Kobe brand from Japan.

When asked about his preferences, Itani smiled and said he might turn down a cut of Kobe-style beef over a Black Angus strip steak.

“You couldn’t eat more than two ounces of Miyazaki beef,” he said. “ You’d be hurting. It’s like eating two ounces of fat.”

One Comment

  1. I have to admit, that while I can appreciate Kobe beef, as a grass-fed grower I hope people keep looking for more local, grass-fed beef.

    PS That marbling is something else.

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