Conversation surrounding Larry Olmstead’s book, Real Food, Fake Food, which launched this week, has brought the counterfeit food conversation to the fore. In an article for Bon Appétit, the author dove deep into Kobe beef — the world’s most commonly faked meat. The TL;DR version is that you’re not going to get any real Kobe made into sliders. Maybe Kobe himself and five or six other people could afford those. But there are a whole lot of ins and outs to the issue for anyone willing to dig deeper.
Kobe Beef is one of the more coveted cuts of meat in markets and on menus across the world. But it turns out that unless you’re in very specific restaurants, you’re not eating “real” Kobe. Kobe is a regional variation of Wagyu (meaning literally “Japanese cow”). Think sparkling white wine from Champagne in France as being the only sparkling white that can be called champagne. In order for the Kobe to be authentic, it must hail from the Hyogo prefecture and be bred from a very specific breed of Wagyu — Tajima. When all these criteria are met, then we’re talking actual Kobe beef. All that humdrum you’ve heard about classical music being pipped into stables, cow massages, and beer diets is actually just mythos. In fact, the only thing that makes Wagyu, and Kobe, so unique are the breeding practices. Many of the cows’ lineages can be traced back centuries.
Wagyu beef is graded according to a marbling standard with a 1-12 point system. This standard also applies to the marbling of USDA Angus beef as well, so comparatively, “USDA Prime, our highest marbling grade, equates to about 4. Most domestic Wagyu or hybrids would score 6-9, while Kobe usually ranks 10 or higher.” This is measured against what’s called a Yield Grade which measures cut-ability that’s ranked A, B, or C — A being the highest. A few other factors are weighed and you end up with the highest grade of A5 or A4 awarded for prized Kobe beef. Wagyu beef not from Hyogo also ranks as high as A5, and there are absolutely American and Australian Wagyu that rank an A5. This can get confusing as the USDA also grades on an ABCDE scale for aging which Wagyu does not adhere to.
At the end of the day, you will pay more for a Kobe A5 than you will an average (by Japanese standards) Wagyu A5 because of the heritage of the Tajima cattle.
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Top grade Wagyu is a peak food experience for many carnivores. The intense marbling of fat almost overwhelms the ruddy lean of each piece of meat. It’s always a light pink and the fat is what most Wagyu-seekers covet most. According to Larry Olmsted, “It’s also unusually high in healthier unsaturated fatty acids — especially oleic acid, which is responsible for flavor.” Everything’s ramped up to 11 with a nice piece of Wagyu, and especially the Kobe region’s offerings.
The monounsaturated fat content is also known for its very low melting point that’s “just below” your body’s temperature. That means the fat of a Wagyu steak literally melts in your mouth.
So what is in the Kobe burger you paid an extra $5 or $10 for down at the gastropub? It may be Wagyu raised in the USA or Australia. More likely, it’s just regular old ground U.S. Angus. Yes, promises were made, but let’s get a cold, hard fact out of the way: actual Kobe beef is only served at EIGHT restaurants in the entire United States. It’s not available on the open market or at grocery stores. It’s not in the frozen food aisle.
A tiny amount of Kobe is exported outside of Japan. In fact, “today, enough reaches the U.S. to satisfy the average beef consumption of just 77 Americans.” On top of that, the price is well over $50 an ounce. So unless you’re paying $250 for that Kobe burger, something is amiss. Oh, and, Japanese Wagyu beef, much less Kobe, is never ground in the first place. It’s almost exclusively served in tenderloin, filet, and entrecôte in Japan.
What most of us will find on menus in the U.S. is our version of Wagyu beef. Wagyu is raised and served in the USA from cows that have to be only be 46.9 percent Wagyu. The rest of the breed is usually just regular ol’ USDA Angus cow. Where it gets super sketch is that the USDA requires the farmer and abattoir to adhere to the 46.9 percent rule to label their beef Wagyu. Restaurants are not bound by this rule, therefore they can call any beef Wagyu or Kobe. And, hoo boy, do they love to do that.
So how does one sift through menus that are taking advantage of our lack of knowledge to gouge our wallets? Here’s a hard and fast rule: no certificate, no Kobe. Restaurants are required to show you their certification as a Kobe beef seller. Otherwise, you’ll have to look up ticket prices to Japan.
As for Wagyu, that’s more of a crapshoot. Restaurants with Wagyu on their menu should tell you the source — most likely either Australian or U.S. If there’s no source on the menu, ask the waiter. Wagyu is expensive and hard to source, and they must be able to identify where the Wagyu beef ranks from A5 on down. If they don’t know where it’s from or a rank, there’s a very high chance it has nothing to do with Wagyu beef.
The last test is price. Average Wagyu costs around $20 per ounce retail. The average hamburger patty is 4-6 ounces. Even if the burger is a 50/50 blend of Angus and Wagyu, we’re still talking a $50 hamburger at the very least.
It’s best to keep this in mind: if a restaurant is calling their burger a Kobe burger, it’s the same as someone relabeling a bottle of Mad Dog 20/20 as Dom Perignon Vintage just so they can jack up the price. They both get you drunk and are fizzy. But they’re not the same thing.
And for the record, these are the eight restaurants authorized to sell Kobe beef in the U.S.:
— 212 Steakhouse Restaurant, New York, NY
— Alexander’s Steakhouse-Cupertino, Cupertino, CA
— Alexander’s Steakhouse-San Francisco Restaurant, San Francisco, CA
— SLS Las Vegas – Bazaar Meat by José Andrés Restaurant, Las Vegas, NV
— Jean Georges Steakhouse, Aria Resort and Casino, Las Vegas, NV
— Nick & Sam’s Restaurant, Dallas, TX
— Wynn Las Vegas – SW Steakhouse Restaurant, Las Vegas, NV
— Teppanyaki Ginza Onodera, Honolulu, HI
(Via Bon Appétit)