Kobe beef is considered by many to be the best form of beef available in the world, although it is prohibitively expensive and importation from Japan is virtually impossible. Gourmet chefs prize Kobe beef for its tenderness, flavor and amount of intramuscular fat, called marbling. Heavy marbling gives steak its satisfying mouthfeel, and many cuts of Kobe beef are graded several categories about USDA Prime because of this. While some restaurants are permitted to sell a 'Kobe-style' beef product, only a strain of cattle called wagyu slaughtered in the Kobe region of Japan can be called Kobe beef.
The story of Kobe beef begins with the importation of wagyu cattle into the isolated Kobe region. These cattle were brought in as work animals to aid with rice harvesting. Because the region was so isolated, however, these original wagyu cattle were not transferred for work in other regions of Japan.
The wagyu cattle bloodlines eventually developed some unique genetic characteristics, such as the abundance of marbling. Because these wagyu cattle cannot exercise on the limited Japanese pasturelands, workers massage their muscles to prevent soreness and loss of appetite. Believing that a soft skin produces more tender meat, Kobe beef ranchers also rub the wagyu cattle's hides with sake, a Japanese rice wine.
The one essential rule concerning Kobe beef is that the wagyu cattle must be slaughtered in the Kobe region of Japan. Because of a severe shortage of available land, Japanese beef growers have allowed a select group of international cattlemen to raise wagyu cattle in their native countries. The cattle must be transported back to Kobe, Japan for final processing, however.
This situation has caused some frustration among restaurateurs who wish to obtain Kobe beef outside of Japan. Although wagyu cattle can be seen wandering the open fields of the western United States, they remain the property of Japanese beef growers. A hybrid of wagyu and American Angus beef can be purchased legally, but pure Kobe beef is not legally exported from Japan.
Those who have tasted Kobe beef have either praised it as the best meat in the world or have questioned the hype surrounding it. Some say it's a matter of proper preparation. Steaks cut from Kobe beef are said to have more of a foie gras or liver consistency, akin to a filet mignon. Kobe beef can be prepared as an ingredient in stir fry dishes, with high heat creating a quick sear. Many shabu-shabu restaurants also offer slices of raw Kobe beef to customers, who cook it lightly in steaming pots of water. A Kobe beef steak should never be served above medium-rare for maximum flavor. The preferred method is to preheat a cast-iron skillet and sear the meat quickly on both sides, leaving the middle just slightly warm.
Whether or not Kobe beef is worth its considerable price is a matter of debate. There are critics who suggest that the Angus breed of cattle is no guarantee of quality, either. Individual wagyu cattle strains can vary in quality and amount of marbling.
When compared to the United States meat ratings of Select, Choice or Prime, most Kobe beef is ranked at least two grades higher than Prime, a special grade the Japanese call Platinum. Some Kobe beef growers based in the United States have recently begun a program which would allow certain restaurateurs to purchase limited quantities of pure wagyu beef. If the market for Kobe beef proves profitable for the growers, it may become possible for Americans to sample it without the need to visit Japan.