Kobe beef explained

Ask for proof of origin when ordering

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Questioning Kobe

It looks delicious -- but is it Kobe beef? Know what to ask -- and what the differences are. (Handout)

Q: Could you possibly clear up the notion of Kobe beef? From what I have read it is extremely hard to find the real stuff outside of Japan and that in the U.S. it's all just a big scam.

—Patrick W. Marsden, Marina del Rey, Calif.

A: Genuine certified Kobe beef comes from the Tajima breed of cattle raised in a prescribed way in the Japanese prefecture of Hyogo, of which Kobe is the capital. Kobe beef is a registered trademark in Japan.

At one time, Kobe beef imports were banned in the United States, sparking a Forbes website article in April 2012 by Larry Olmsted titled, "Food's Biggest Scam: The Great Kobe Beef Lie." Later that year, the U.S. government allowed Kobe beef into the country.

The American distributor of Kobe beef is Fremont Beef Co. of Fremont, Neb. Laun Hinkle, Fremont's sales manager, tells me you should ask to see proof of authenticity before ordering any meat described on the menu as "Kobe beef." A restaurant or market with the real stuff should be eager to show you the certification.

Why the hunger for Kobe beef?

"The Japanese have done an excellent job of marketing it like caviar and high-end wines,'' Hinkle says. "Also there's a very, very limited supply, only about 3,000 animals a year."

Why look for it? Kobe beef is prized for its flavor, its marbling, its mouth feel.

"It's a very buttery, smooth-textured product completely different than U.S. beef,'' replies Hinkle, noting Kobe beef is so rich a 4-ounce portion would suffice. "An 8- or 10-ounce steak would be hard to eat,'' he adds.

Now, just as there is Champagne from Champagne, France, and "champagne" from, say, California, there is "kobe" beef from the United States. You need to look at the fine print for phrasing like "American kobe" or "kobe-style" or "domestic kobe" and decide accordingly.

Martha Patterson, registrar and administrative assistant for the American Wagyu Association, a breed association headquartered in Post Falls, Idaho, says association members are urged not to use the word "Kobe" with their animals out of respect for Kobe being a place name – like Champagne.

"Wagyu" is the name for certain Japanese cattle breeds. If "Kobe" is the Champagne of Japanese steers, both because of its location-specific use and rigid quality standards, "wagyu" is a more generic term, like sparkling wine. (Don't sniff; just ask any wino. Sparkling wine can be as good, or better, than Champagne depending on the maker.) While not as legendary as Kobe, wagyu is also famed for flavor, texture and a high degree of marbling.

Some wagyu breeds are now being raised in the United States and Australia and others areas around the globe. American wagyu "is the same animal" as the Japanese original, says Patterson, but I'm sure Japanese cattle farmers would beg to differ with her.

Florence Fabricant, in a 2012 New York Times article on the return of imported wagyu to the United States, wrote that Japanese version "is as costly for one steak as a cashmere sweater and is much more densely marbled with fat. Its muscle is paler in color than its American counterpart." The American version, she added, was redder, "beefier-tasting, more like a super tender, classic American steak."

Given you will likely pay a premium for a "name" piece of beef, whether its Kobe or wagyu, do request documentation to make sure you are getting what you pay for.

Do you have a question about food or drink? E-mail Bill Daley at: wdaley@tribune.com. Snail mail inquiries should be sent to: Bill Daley, Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago 60611. Twitter @billdaley.

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