Before we eat any given food, we really have no idea how it’s going to taste. We rely on other things to convince us that what we’re about to eat is going to be good, or at least that it’s going to be worth eating. The smell and appearance of a food are obvious factors in making this choice, but of course even these can be misleading (see: stinky tofu). And there are other factors that go into our eating decisions, factors that have nothing to do with the actual object we see and smell when it is served to us: recommendations from friends or reviews, physical and social contexts, psychological associations, etc.
For me, living in Japan, one of these more abstract factors that has a very powerful predetermining effect on how I judge food, and how I desire food, is the meibutsu factor. I have made a hobby out of traveling achikochi around Japan with one main goal: to sample meibutsu, the foods or drinks for which different cities or areas are famous or unique. This has taken me from a family-owned Ainu restaurant in Sapporo all the way down to the garlic-tonkotsu ramen shops of Kumamoto, and many places in between – Togakushi for soba, Uji for tea, Osaka for okonomiyaki, etc. Perhaps stupidly, I am generally ready and willing to believe that if a certain food is famous in a certain area, then it will also be delicious in that area. (And so far, this attitude has led me to more delights than disappointments.)
Sometimes, this sort of culinary tourism intersects with conspicuous consumption in interesting ways. In fact, that’s sort of what this blog is all about – I travel all around Japan, I eat as much as I can, and then I brag about it here. I should note that by “conspicuous consumption, ” I don’t mean flaunting material wealth exclusively; I also mean flaunting sorts of social capital, things like knowledge, cosmopolitanism, and adventurousness. Look at me, I ate weird food (chicken feet, fish semen)! Taboo food (whale, horse)! Expensive food (Belgian beer, gold foil)!
So last week, I got to visit Kobe on my employer’s tab for a conference. And in my meibutsu-obsessed mind, Kobe = beef.
Although it’s not as highly regarded as it once was, Kobe beef is still pretty legendary stuff, and not just in Japan. For years, restauranteurs and their head chefs in other highly bovinophagous nations – especially America, England, and Australia – have imported it at astronomical premiums so that their menus can boast the richly marbled (and vaguely exotic) beef to discerning clientele. Much of the mystique surrounding Kobe beef is related to the luxurious and sometimes furtive ways in which Kobe beef cattle are (purportedly) raised – people say they are fed beer and a variety of whole grains, they are massaged daily (with sake!), and they are generally treated like royalty. Cow royalty, anyway.
So it’s no wonder that when you go to Kobe, or anywhere selling Kobe beef, you should expect to pay anywhere in the $50-500 range for a single steak, depending on the size, the cut, and the restaurant’s management. Kobe beef is a Veblen good – it is partly (mostly?) because of its extremely high price that it is so sought-after and celebrated.
Which brings us back to conspicuous consumption. The allure of Kobe beef, at least to me, has at least four components: it’s expensive; it’s famous; it’s regionally unique; and it’s impressive to Japanese friends and foodie friends alike – eating Kobe beef is like a gastronomical accomplishment, and a legitimate cultural experience. I was excited to try Kobe beef. I was sure it would be awesome. It would be well worth the money.
However, having already blown most of my travel budget on cask ales in Osaka and with things yet to buy in Kobe, I settled for a small serving of Kobe beef at a teppanyaki restaurant instead of a whole steak at a specialty restaurant. The Kobe beef I got was prepared as tataki たたき – seared, but essentially still raw (some say that because of Kobe beef’s delicate structure, this is one of the better ways to prepare it). It cost 1200 yen for what I would have estimated to be about 70-80 grams of beef.
And it was good. Really good. Tender, rich, soft… delicate in texture, but with a hearty flavor that easily held its own against the spicy onions and ginger that accompanied it. Yum. Kobe beef!
But even though I enjoyed it, I couldn’t help but think of the beef I had the night before, at an ishiyaki 石焼 (stone grill) restaurant that specializes in chicken. All five of us who tried that beef lit up and said something to the effect of “Oh my god! This beef is amazing!” upon tasting it. And it really was amazing – saturated with buttery fat, exuding flushes of deep, rich flavor with each tender, succulent chew. Carbonized and crispy in all the right places from the hot stone, ooh, it may have been the best beef I’ve ever had! We asked our server where the beef came from, and she replied that it’s wagyu 和牛. Wagyu literally means “Japanese cow,” and it is used to describe the meat from four specific breeds of cattle that were originally cultivated in Japan, but are now also raised abroad in places like Canada and California. So that wasn’t much help. Then we asked specifically if it was Kobe beef, and she said she didn’t know, and neither did the chefs.
We figured that if the proprietors of a restaurant in Kobe were serving Kobe beef, they would know it, and they would make it known. So that amazing stone-grilled wagyu was most likely not Kobe beef, and what’s more, the restaurant staff apparently consider its origin completely unremarkable. But it was so good! Much better than the world-famous Kobe beef I had the next night. Now, what does this say about my reasons for seeking out Kobe beef? What does this say about Kobe beef’s reputation as “better” than beef with no name? And how about the price of Kobe beef? And its status as an international meibutsu?
The answer to all of these questions is simple – it’s all bullshit.