I recently had an out of body experience. It was called Kobe beef. In a nondescript yakiniku restaurant in a nondescript mall in Bangkok’s little Tokyo area, I ascended the proverbial stairway to heaven, and it’s an experience I’m keen to repeat.
First, context. We’d been wandering around this specialty golfing mall called Thaniya Plaza – yes, such things exist – looking at golf clubs, golf balls, putting mats, golf attire, and mostly useless golf widgets (for example – three varieties of exploding golf ball that will allegedly cause your golfing partners to roar with laughter, or more likely, rage) and we were starving. The kids and I parked ourselves on a bench outside a restaurant with a Japanese-sounding name and waited for our avid golfer to declare his shopping spree complete. On his return, we ignored his plaintive pleas to eat outside on the street (not Thai food again!) and insisted that a sushi binge was in order.
Nihongo Hanasemasen (I Can’t Speak Japanese…)
Inside, we discovered to our distress that a) no one spoke a word of English, and b) they didn’t serve sushi. On the plus side, they had a picture-based menu and the place seemed chock-full of Japanese people. We were seated without much fuss at a table with a hole in the middle. I knew what that meant – a grill. Okay, so there was going to be some Korean-style BBQ thing going on… never going to match up to sushi, I thought glumly. A glance at the menu, with its pictures of raw meat of every description, proved me right (as usual, ho hum). My husband ordered a bibim bap. There were also a few Bento boxes on offer, and my younger son decided to try one of these – salmon – even as I ordered duck and pork to begin with.
Japanese Vs. Korean BBQ
A large brazier, known as a shichirin, was brought to the table and the coals were lit. We were served the customary bowls of marinated veggies. They weren’t limp or soggy, and had soaked up their rice wine and sesame oil dressing well. The duck and pork arrived in short order, and were grilled at the table.
Was it a Korean BBQ? No. Completely different – for one, the meats weren’t pre-marinated, and came to the table unadorned. They were grilled without any seasoning, served without the banchan that are essential to a Korean BBQ, and were dunked in a mirin-sweetened soy dip immediately after grilling to stop the cooking process and add flavor.
We worked our way through two different cuts of pork, duck, pork tongue, ox tongue, and two different cuts of beef. It was all chopstick-lickin’ good. And I couldn’t get enough of it.
Kobe or not Kobe, That Is The Question (okay, I know that’s lame!)
Sushi forgotten, brain’s pleasure-centers stimulated to an eye-glazed, happy-high buzz, I was seduced by the opportunity to try something I had only heard about on food shows, and wondered aloud whether to order the Kobe beef despite its exorbitant price tag (1500 Baht, or Rs.2100).
The Spouse and I glanced at each other over our menu cards in tacit acknowledgment of the fact that we are both suckers for good food, that we were both going to kick ourselves later, and that neither of us could possibly be counted on to be the voice of reason at that particular point in time. My husband summoned the waitress and I stabbed at the picture emphatically. She uttered her only English words of the afternoon: “Vellly goooooood!”
The beef arrived, sans fanfare, a few minutes later. Five innocuous slices of beef on a plate. They’re about the size and shape of Kit Kat bars – the small ones – only much thinner. Kobe beef looks like no beef I’ve ever seen before. Its entire surface is marbled with fat – not silverskin, fat. The five thin-as-a-CD-cover slices are placed on the grill for all of 30 seconds a side, and then dunked in the by-now richly flavored soy dip.
Heaven-on-a-plate, And How to Achieve It
I have never tasted anything like this, so I don’t really have benchmarks to describe it – I can only try. The texture is buttery, the flavor exquisite. It’s as rich as foie gras and has the same mouth-feel as properly cut otoro tuna sashimi.
It is crucial to grill the meat for exactly the right amount of time. Grill too long, and the fat will melt away, leaving you with ordinary-tasting beef, and a lot of fat sizzling on the coal. Grill too little, and you’re basically going to be eating cold fat and rare beef that haven’t had a chance to meet, woo, and wed one another.
To enjoy a truly sensuous Kobe beef experience, the fat needs to be “activated” – in other words, it needs to be grilled to the point where the outermost, sliver-thin layer of fat has melted, while the inner layers have just had a chance to heat through and soften – thus lending a velvety texture to the now medium-rare beef.
What Is This Stuff Anyway?
It’s the fat:muscle ratio that makes Kobe beef so special. But is it healthy to consume that much fat? How exactly is the high fat content and marbling achieved? What is Kobe beef anyway?
First, let’s get the health thing out of the way. The fat in Kobe beef contains a much higher percentage of mono-unsaturated fatty acids than regular beef. Plus, because there’s so much of it, you tend to need to consume less to feel satisfied. So yes, it can be argued that it’s a healthier choice than say, a full-blooded Omaha steak.
Next, what is Kobe beef? Kobe is a port city in the Kansai region of the island of Honshu in Japan. Many of us think of “Kobe beef” as the meat of Wagyu cattle. Aficionados, however, make the distinction between “Kobe-style” beef and true Kobe beef, which, by definition, can only be called as such if it belongs to the black Tajima strain of Wagyu cattle and has been born, raised, and slaughtered in Japan’s Hyogo prefecture.
A lot of hype surrounds the care given to the cattle raised for Kobe beef. We’re led to believe that the cows are pampered with beer, sake, and apples; that they are massaged with special oils; and that they are each raised in an individual pasture. All true; yet not because the farmers love their cows:
- Let’s start with those personal pastures. The reason that the meat of the Tajima breed is marbled with so much fat is that the Hyogo prefecture where they originate has so little pasture land. The idea is now to pump the fat ratio up even higher and prevent muscle toughness by restricting their freedom of movement further. So that “pasture” could actually turn out to be a small pen – if moo cow’s lucky.
The booze? During the hot months, the cows go off their food, and the beer and sake mush help stimulate their appetite.
- Massaging them is less of a salon treatment and more of a let’s-ensure-that-the-fat-is-evenly-spread-through-the-muscle kind of exercise.
Is any of this cruel? Mine is not to question why, mine is but to eat, die, and go to heaven.
Where Can I Get Some?
In the U.S., Kobe-style beef is available freely, albeit a high price tag (try a whopping $100-$125 for a 11 oz steak at better restaurants). To those of my readers who live or travel there: try it, and try it at a good restaurant that knows what it’s doing, or it’s simply moolah down the drain. To my Bangalore readers, I have tried (in vain) to locate it here. Not even at Zen at the Leela, I’m afraid.
Otherwise, if you’ve put Kobe beef on your try-before-you-die list of foods and happen to be visiting Mumbai, here’s where you can get it: Tetsuma, 41/44 Dr Minoo Desai Marg, Near Prive Lounge, Colaba, Mumbai. Phone: 022 22876578. Or, of course, Wasabi at the Hotel Taj.
If you know of any other place in India that serves this delight, tell me… I wanna ‘nother fix.