The Observer, Feb 2003
Holy Cow: The legend involves beer and sake, music and massage – and that’s just for the cattle. A journey to the source of the magnificently marbled Kobe beef reveals a few more of its secrets.
Photographs by Steve Read
Also at the Observer
I first heard the legend of Kobe beef in June this year, from a portly old Japanese man with a snowy beard and sparkling eyes (for the dispensation of myths, Mr Tanaka could not have been better designed). We were sat in coach on an Air Nippon flight to Tokyo, and had barely exchanged pleasantries when lunch arrived – a dismal chicken teriyaki effort. I heard him chuckle. “My meat’s like rubber, how’s yours?” he said. “Oh dear, look at the state of your broccoli!” (In-flight food is like the weather or any number of shared discomforts – when it’s bad, it’s just bad, but when it’s truly awful, it’s a bonding experience).
As our conversation veered into Japanese cuisine in general, taking in Nobu Matsuhisha, puffer fish and Iron Chef, Mr Tanaka asked whether I had tried Kobe beef. “Oh but it’s the finest beef in the world!” he said, eagerly, “you must visit Kobe yourself and see.” And for a good 10 minutes, he rhapsodised about a meat so exquisitely marbled that it melts in your mouth, a steak sensation nonpareil, a delicacy, an extravagance, an epicurial wonder of the world.
“You see the farmers have a secret way of raising the cattle,” he said, lowering his voice conspiratorially. “It is said that they feed the cows beer! And they massage them with sake!” He burst out laughing. “Not a bad lifestyle really, if you’re a cow!”
Or even if you’re not a cow, Mr Tanaka – if it weren’t for the inevitable chop, I’d sign up myself. But is it true? It makes sense that the myth involves beer in a nation whose lager obsession rivals that of our own. (Only in Japan will you find your hotel lobby teeming with businessmen drinking litre bottles of Sapporo, at 6am on a Sunday morning.) But does beef’s holy grail really lead to a bunch of secretly smashed cows in southern Japan slurping Asahi from troughs?
Certainly, the rumours are rife, as a quick Google search reveals, but they lack consistency. At one extreme, the beery diet is given only a fleeting mention, as though it were a trifling detail, a mere aside. And at the other pole, Kobe cows are depicted as nothing short of bovine Waynettas on holiday, for whom life is but a cycle of food, booze, snooze and – so as not to strain the poor dears – the occasional rubdown. The logic goes that a regime of beer and massage relaxes the cows and relaxed, happy cows make tender, tasty sirloins. It’s stress, apparently, that makes for tough steak – stress and exertion – so not only are the squiffy beasts encouraged to kick back and forget their worries and cares, they are expressly forbidden any exercise and, according to some accounts, further soothed with calming music. In fact, their only duty is to eat – like the geese who give us foie gras, Kobe cows are required to literally beef up (though there’s no mention of funnels).
Or at least, that’s the myth.
Determined to find out the truth, I took Mr Tanaka’s advice and travelled to Kobe on the bullet train (4hrs west of Tokyo). After all, so many questions remained unanswered. Why beer, for example, and not wine? How much do cows drink and do they get rowdy? Randy? Is there an age limit, or can calves get ripped too? Who discovered this technique, anyway, and how? And if steak is improved by plying cows with lager, what about lamb chops – do sheep like a drink, too?
Kobe beef is one of the first sights to greet visitors upon arrival at Shinkobe station. Just beyond the ticket turnstiles, near the tourist office desk and its Welcome to Kobe posters, is a collection of steaks in a glass display case, and they look nothing like the two-tone kind you find in cartoons and English supermarkets (with the thick white trim around the lean red flesh). Kobe beef is so densely streaked, so capillarised with thin white rivulets, that the fat and the lean seem to vie for supremacy, the line between them is near impossible to draw. Admittedly, such intense intramuscular marbling can look grotesque at first, as though the fat were a disease that had infested the meat, but I blame this knee-jerk response on years of anti-fat indoctrination. Where beef is concerned, fat is flavour and Kobe beef is abundantly, defiantly riddled with the stuff. It cocks a snook at calorie counters, cholesterol lobbies and fitness killjoys. Just seeing it out there, as the pride of Kobe, is liberating. (Incidentally, scientists have shown that much of the fat in Kobe beef is unsaturated, which is a lesser evil compared to the saturated stuff – but if it’s milligram figures you’re after, best stick to salad).
“Excuse me, is it true that these cows are fed beer and massaged with sake?” I asked the lady at the beef stand. Her Welcome-to-Kobe smile stiffened at once.
“I’m sorry, sir, I cannot answer you,” she said, blushing. “You must ask someone else, I am only selling. Please stand to one side sir, thank you…” She handed me some street-maps, and in a fit of bowing, turned to her next customer.
Unperturbed, I ventured into the Sannomiya district, the beating heart of Kobe’s nightlife. It was throbbing. Young girls on cellphones, boys on skateboards, herds of tanked-up salarymen clones pouring in and out of hostess bars – Sannomiya is where Kobe comes to eat, drink, sing karaoke and sample the pleasures of the flesh, both bovine and bordello. Typically, there were also plenty of gaijins (foreigners) out and about – unlike nearby Kyoto for example, which is home to all that is old and traditional in Japan, Kobe is known for its progressive, cosmopolitan character, as befits Japan’s oldest international tradeport. In fact, foreign sailors and merchant seamen were the first to spread the myth of Kobe beef back in the early 19th century.
“Yes, yes, we can talk about the cows later, but first, you must eat.” If anyone knew the truth about Kobe beef, it would be Chef Uenosan, the squat and jolly proprietor of Sannomiya’s popular Steakland restaurant (“serving Kobe Beef for 55 years!”). He buys 1,200 carcasses a year, he counts several cattle farmers among his personal friends and he even acquires a beefy pallor when flushed. “Look!” he said, proudly unveiling a 16oz slab. “I hope you’re hungry!”
Typically, Kobe beef is prepared teppan-yaki style – that is, in a blur of scraping spatulas, on a steel hot plate (the teppan), right before your eyes (‘yaki’ means ‘stir fry’). Though many chefs interpret this performance cooking as an opportunity to pull silly little stunts like flipping shrimp into their top pockets, Uenosan was mercifully restrained. The art to cooking Kobe beef, he explained, is to sear, as you would foie gras or ahi tuna. The meat’s composition is so uniquely fatty, that were it to be prepared like a regular steak, the fat would seep out, taking the flavour with it, and the remaining flesh would collapse like a building whose walls had been removed. So rather than flash fry the whole slab, Uenosan sliced the steak into ½” cubes and flipped them from face to face, leaving the centre of each red, raw and quivering.
The whole process took no more than 5 minutes. The sensation, I shall remember for years. Rich, tender and so juicy that the smallest morsel had me leaning over my plate and grasping for a napkin. Just as Mr Tanaka had promised, it chewed gently at first until the velvet soft flesh melted away and left a savoury tingling aftertaste so involving that you could observe it dissipate for hours. There was no turning back now. My Tokyo plans would have to wait – I could change the flight, maybe get a job here teaching English, meet a nice Kobe girl, settle down…
The beef was served with a tangy dipping sauce (based on miso, garlic and soy), small heaps of long-stem Shimeji mushrooms, beansprouts and bok choi (all fried as normal and then splashed with brandy on the heat in the final few seconds), and a side of zucchini strips and garlic (deep fried in butter to a brown, odourless crisp). Bar the limp Kobe wine – a grape heritage all of 20 years old – and the ‘Kobe bread’ which looked and tasted exactly like a ‘breakfast croissant’, it was an excellent meal.
“Yes, they do feed the cows beer,” said Uenosan, finally. “And they massage them with sake, it’s true. And sometimes they play lovely music so the cows are happy and sleeping.” He made as though to sleep and laughed. When I asked whether I might be able to visit one of his farmer friends, however, he looked pained. “No, I’m sorry, it’s not possible,” he said, fidgeting with his spatula nervously. “I don’t know anyone. You have to speak to the agriculture department.” The bill appeared ($100 per head) and that was the last I saw of him.
So the next morning, it was down to City Hall to request a meeting with a Kobe beef farmer – only a farmer could confirm or deny this myth. But I wasn’t optimistic. Not only does Japanese officialdom have a reputation for intransigence that puts our own bureaucracies in the shade, but I had arrived at a terrible time – the papers were reporting a beef industry in trouble following a rash of foot-and-mouth and an isolated case of BSE. The last thing the suits would want was a foreigner poking his nose around. And sure enough, after a long, exasperating week of unreturned messages and innumerable faxes, I was still none the wiser. Worse, I could no longer distinguish between politeness, a ritual so consuming in Japan, and rudeness.
Eventually, a Mr Majima granted me a few minutes. A goofy spin doctor with an obsequious grin, he plainly wanted me out of his office as soon as possible.
“The marbling is only because of the genes,” he said. “And because Kobe farmers are so expert.”
What do they feed them?
“Oh, you know, just wheat, rice-bran, soya beans…”
“No, no, they drink water, we have very good water in Kobe.”
But Uenosan, the chef of Steakland said –
“Yes, I know, these are just stories. Beer is just a story. Massage is a story. Is there anything else?” He stood up and bowed.
How did the stories start?
“I have no idea. We do appreciate your interest in Kobe beef.” He bowed again.
Can I speak with a farmer?
“No, no…” And like Uenosan, his smile became a pained grimace, as though I had now punctured the decorum of our meeting. By putting him in the awkward position of having to turn me down, I had somehow deflated all his bowing. “It is very difficult for me at this time.”
“Because… Try to call in two weeks, but no promises.”
Something was clearly up. Had Majima written “cover-up” on his forehead, in permanent marker, he could not have done a better job. Rumours of alcohol, an ailing beef industry, a chef afraid to reveal his sources, stonewalling at City Hall… Kobe beef had all the hallmarks of a bovine Watergate, a Beefgate conspiracy. Out of frustration, as much as anything else, I went to Tokyo – perhaps, in the capital, away from the close-knit agendas of a small-town, I might find my Deep Throat.
“Oh sure, it’s true about the beer, all right. But not only in Kobe, in other areas too.” Kiyoshi Ogana is the sous-chef at the New York Grill, certainly the most magnificent steakhouse in Tokyo, and as such knows a thing or two about beef. Despite the name, the New York Grill is widely commended by the likes of Zagat for its selection of Japanese beef, which taste all the better for the breathtaking views of the city from the 52nd floor of the Park Hyatt hotel.
“I’ve heard the same thing said about the beef in Maesawa, Yamagata, Matsuzaka and Yonezawa. It’s quite common. But your chances of find a farmer who will admit it are slim. You see, Japan is a very rugged country with lots of mountains, so cattle farmers have only small ranches in isolated pockets in between, nothing like the huge plains you find in Texas. In each of these pockets, the farmers develop their own feeding and breeding methods and they tend to keep them secret. I doubt they even tell the agriculture department what they’re doing!”
As I consoled myself with a sumptuous Maesawa sirloin, Ogana explained that all of Japan’s star steaks – Kobe or otherwise – come from the Kuroge Wagyu breed, or “Japanese black-haired cow” which dates back to 1830. (‘Kuroge’ means black-haired, ‘wa’ means Japanese, and ‘gyu’ is cow). The black-haired cows are raised all over Japan, and although the Kobe strain is the most celebrated, connoisseurs find equivalent merits elsewhere. Invariably, the marbling is exquisite, and makes for excellent sashimi, tartare or indeed teppan-yaki – the only differences being in the extent and pattern of the marbling, which make for subtle variations in taste and texture. The Maesawa, for example, is slightly chewier though equally juicy. If there is one characteristic that dominates all top grade Japanese beef, however – the central motive for Wagyu breeders over the centuries – it is softness. The Japanese palate loves soft, melt-in-the-mouth food like sushi and mochi (the gooey rice-based sweet).
Which was all very interesting, but it didn’t quite nail the myth of Kobe beef. So, with my flight home two days away, I called Mr Majima to plead with him one last time. By some miracle, he came through. “Meet me at City Hall tomorrow at 4pm,” he said. “I have a farmer for you.” And on my last day in Japan, I found myself in a taxi with Mr Majima heading for the hills. “You see Mount Rokko?” he said, pointing to the imposing, densely wooded peak that overlooks the city, often shrouded at its summit in mist and low cloud. “This is where Kobe beef is made.” After a long coiling drive up the hillside, we found Mr Nakanishi, the beef farmer. At last!
“Come,” said Nakanishi, briskly escorting me to the cowshed, with Mr Majima hovered at all times. The cows were eating, lazily masticating as they do. They seemed sober enough (but how can you tell?) “So you can see, it’s not the beer,” said Nakanishi, “it’s the feed we give them. We don’t force feed them either, it’s the quality of the feed, not the quantity that matters. The only time we give them beer is-“ he looked edgily at Majima – “to help with digestion. Sometimes the cows lose their appetite so we administer maybe one bottle of Asahi.”
“It’s not really massage, it’s more grooming, we brush their coats thoroughly and yes, we use sake because it makes the coat look glossy. It helps when we sell the cow at auction.”
And with that, he escorted us to our taxi and we returned from misty Mt Rokko, myself and Majima, each wondering what the other was thinking. Were Nakanishi and Majima in cahoots or was Nakanishi afraid to contradict City Hall? Or perhaps, as Ogana had pointed out, no cattle farmer would surrender his secrets so easily – perhaps Majima himself didn’t know whether the rumours were true. Who knows? Without breathalysing the cows individually, it seemed, there would be no way of knowing for sure. And what are the chances of City Hall allowing that?
Perhaps this is all as it should be. After all, the steak is spectacular, there’s no secret there, and it’s only fitting that it comes attached to an outlandish tale. So why spoil a great story?
As I flew home, regarding the inflight fare with thinly disguised disdain, an American couple to my left asked me what I’d been up to in Japan. So I told them: “have you heard of Kobe beef? They have this secret way of raising the cattle…”