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Friday, January 17, 2020

Where’s the Beef? Wagyu & Kobe


                                            American Wagyu must be at least 50% Wagyu

I was a guest at a recent holiday dinner party.   In addition to being an extraordinary decorator, the home’s owner is an accomplished cook and a lover of wine.   As I was bringing the wine for the main course, I inquired about the menu:  my friend was splurging on a prime rib of Wagyu beef, so we dug out two bottles of 1995 Lynch Bages for the table of six.  Everyone present was quite knowledgeable about wine (all had even visited Lynch Bages in Bordeaux!).  But, no one knew many details about Wagyu, or for that matter, how it differed from Kobe.

Both Wagyu and Kobe are native to Japan.  Let’s start with Wagyu.  Interestingly, Wagyu literally translates to Japanese beef (“wa” meaning Japanese, “gyu” meaning cow).   Originally used in agriculture, these cows over centuries went through a selection process where the cows with more physical endurance were selected and bred.   Seems these stronger cows had more intra-muscular fat cells (aka marbling) which provided a readily available source of energy.   There is some evidence that this separation into the Wagyu genetic strain occurred as much as 35,000 years ago.

Modern Wagyu beef in Japan, however, has been cross-bred with European breeds since the 1800’s.  Wagyu first came to the USA in 1975 when someone in Texas imported a few for breeding.   Much of the meat produced was sent to Japan, but in 2003 Japan prohibited importation.   It didn’t take long for America’s chefs and gourmet cooks to discover Wagyu’s unique taste and tenderness because of its highly marbled meat.

                                        All Kobe is Wagyu, but not all Wagyu is Kobe

So, how does Wagyu differ from Kobe beef?  As Wagyu means Japanese beef, all Kobe beef is Wagyu, but not all Wagyu is Kobe.  Let me explain.  Kobe is like an appellation such as  Champagne, or Prosciutto di Parma where only sparkling wine from France’s Champagne district can be called Champagne, and only Prosciutto from pigs raised in a demarcated area in Parma, Italy that have been raised according to strict laws can be called this highly protected name.  Similarly, Kobe beef must come from a certain breed of cattle that have been born, raised, and slaughtered in a certain province of Japan.  Furthermore, Kobe is subject to rigorous Japanese grading that includes fat marbling and overall quality. 

Currently there are approximately only 3,400 cows in the Kobe area of Japan, so how is it possible for Kobe beef to appear on so many American menus?  It’s not.   At best, these are American Wagyu cows.  At worst, they are beef from who knows where.  Currently, there are few laws about what can be called what.  There is also misleading nomenclature such as “Kobe-styled” beef.  Moreover, even if it is real Wagyu beef from the USA, the US Department of Agriculture only requires that the cow be at least 50% Wagyu.

Instead of saying “Where’s the beef,” we should be saying “What’s the beef?”  and “from where is the beef?”


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