Seiko Ishiguro hates to break the news to Canadian diners who are looking for famed and pricey Kobe beef: If you’re eating it in Canada, it’s not Kobe beef.
“They’re always so disappointed, but I end up having to explain that to someone at least once a day,” says Ishiguro, owner of Famu, which bills itself as the only Japanese butcher in the Toronto area.
Real Kobe beef comes from Hyogo prefecture where it is trademarked in Japan. Kobe is the capital of this northern region. The connection is similar to the fact that real Champagne comes from the French region that bears its name, whereas bubbly from other parts of the world is referred to as sparkling wine.
But unlike Champagne, Kobe trademarks are rarely enforced. Canadian restaurants and butchers have freely used the term Kobe even though it has an entirely different meaning outside of Japan. And taste.
So, you guessed it. Those expensive Kobe beef sliders and hot dogs you thought you were eating are not the real deal.
Kobe beef comes from a specific breed of cattle that have a pure genetic lineage. Estimates have put that number at a mere 3,000 head of cattle, which accounts for the high price. A small steak could start at several hundred dollars in Japan for the best cut.
“Real Kobe beef is intensely fat and will melt in your mouth,” says Ishiguro. “It is really flavourful.”
In restaurants and butcher shops across Toronto, Kobe is used as something of a short hand to donate top quality beef. The only way you could likely have gotten Kobe is if someone smuggled it from Japan, or if you eat it in Macau, China, where it has been exported to last year.
Japanese beef has not been readily available in North America since an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in some of Japan’s cattle two years ago. Prior to that, Wagyu beef was available in Canada (it means “Japanese cow,” of which Kobe is the most famous), but Kobe beef hasn’t been easy to get a hold of because Hyogo slaughter houses don’t export to North America.
That doesn’t stop many Toronto restaurants from using the Kobe designation on their menus.
Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, for example, has “Kobe beef” hotdogs at Burkies Dog House in the Air Canada Centre and “Kobe meatball” appetizers at their upscale e11even restaurant.
Robert Bartley, the executive chef and senior director of culinary for MLSE, says he doesn’t think restaurants are being deceptive when they use the Kobe term.
“It’s a term that’s recognized throughout the world to associate with a style of cattle. It’s almost become a generic term for top quality Japanese beef,” says Bartley, who is in charge of thousands of meals each week for everyone from sports fans to highly paid hockey players.
During a visit to Japan last summer, Bartley says he sampled some of the best Kobe available. “I’ve never tasted a better steak in my life. And I can still taste that steak in my mind.”
He says he buys his beef from top quality suppliers in North America and Australia to ensure customers get the best food experience.
Many suppliers sell North American or Australian bred Wagyu beef. This is beef typically borne from Japanese cows, but may have been crossbred with other cows like Angus. While still more heavily marbled than standard beef, it is not Kobe.
“Kobe beef is associated with the finest quality beef from Wagyu cattle raised in the Kobe district in Japan,” says Guy Gravelle, a spokesperson with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) . “The term should not be used unless the product conforms to the origin and traditional production and quality characteristics that this product is known for.”
He says meat products produced from Wagyu or Angus cattle cross breeds should be referred to as “Kobe-style” beef, and that’s only if the “animal husbandry protocols” used by the manufacturer are consistent with that of traditional Japanese Kobe cattle.
While Japanese beef is currently not permitted for import to Canada, the CFIA is currently negotiating new import requirements, says Gravelle.
A spokesperson for the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association, the industry group that represents restaurants, was not available for comment on the issue.
For now, Canadians have to make do with Wagyu bred outside of Japan. It is much more expensive than regular beef.
Famu sells tenderloin at $20 for 100 grams for example. That means a small 170-gram steak (6 ounces) would cost $34 at the butcher before fixings.
At Jacobs & Co. Steakhouse, a 10-ounce cut of Australian Wagyu beef will cost $110. (That’s not including the optional stuffed baked potato with Wagyu brisket on the side at $15 or mushrooms for $14.)
Back to Ishiguro, the Japanese butcher says she gets her meat from a small-scale Japanese farmer who has bred Wagyu beef in Japan. She is philosophical when it comes to throwing around the name Kobe.
“When I first came to Canada, I had never heard of California rolls or beef teriyaki. Teriyaki is for fish,” laughs Ishiguro. “But I guess Kobe has now come to mean something else as well.”