Following the wise, if inside-out, wisdom of Yoda the carnivore, a handful of Inland Northwest restaurants are beginning to feature a type of beef that doesn't need to be cut with a light saber, was once eaten by emperors and comes from cattle that were given beer and massages and generally treated like prized concubines instead of chuck.
The backstory of Kobe beef is worthy of a George Lucas epic involving rebellions and empires in a land far, far away. There's been plenty of political battling and rumors of secret beef cults. More recently, the tales of espionage and skulduggery have involved everything from frozen embryos to vials of bull semen. Wagyu bulls -- or their, um, bits -- have been smuggled out of the Japanese empire and spread throughout the world in a hush-hush progression of shell companies and scandal.
Kobe beef : The meat that is cloaked in myth, mystery and fat. Lots of fat -- but it's the good kind of fat, people insist.
Welcome to the world of wagyu. "Wa" is an archaic Japanese term for things Japanese, and "gyu" is the general word for cattle. It is wagyu cattle -- the domesticated beasts of burden that came to Japan with the wave of settlers from the Korean Peninsula 2,000 years ago -- that are now appearing on select restaurant plates in Coeur d'Alene and Spokane as Kobe beef.
Or should we say Kobe-style beef? Yes, the law insists, we should.
SO SHOW US YOUR MEAT, BIG GUY & r & Let's get right to it, carnivores. Not all meat is created equal and, genetically, wagyu cattle are in a class all their own when it comes to fat. Possibly because of centuries as draft animals hauling heavy loads, and certainly because of genetic isolation, wagyu tend to produce intense intra-muscular fat marbling, known as "sashi" -- far more so than any other breed.
This is not the hard rind of external fat that we are accustomed to encountering on our American beef products. Wagyu tend to synthesize mono-unsaturated fats that are high in oleic acid. This is the so-called good fat that can reduce (or at least not increase) LDLs -- the bad kind of cholesterol.
There are 12 grades of Kobe beef, and even the bottom of the scale starts out higher than our own USDA prime rating. High-end Kobe beef is so marbled with fat that it can appear to have been left out in the snow, writes beef-o-phile Tanith Tyrr.
SO IS THAT A GOOD THING? & r & "It's like sitting down to eat a stick of butter," says Mark Johnson of BP (Better Protein) Marketing, a Seattle-based importer who's been spreading the wagyu word throughout the Northwest for the last five years.
"The Japanese like the heavily marbled grades where the meat is more white than red," Johnson says. "If you and I tried to eat like the Japanese do, I think we would look at each other and say, 'I don't think I like this.' It's too rich and too marbled."
Troy Chandler, one of the few professional chefs around here who uses wagyu in the kitchen, agrees about meat at the top of the Kobe charts.
"I ate a 10-ounce Kobe steak once, and I thought I was going to die. It was enough Kobe beef to last me a lifetime," Chandler says.
But the flavor of the meat and its melt-in-the-mouth tenderness is beguiling. One writer says the taste lingers "like a rare perfume." Besides, it's meat that comes with all this crazy history and lore.
Chandler, who was hired to bring the Bonsai Bistro in Coeur d'Alene to life two years ago, couldn't get that lingering taste out of his mind. He, Johnson and a sixth-generation Australian rancher named David Blackmore, it turns out, had nearly identical brainstorms half a world apart. And the rest, as they say, is dinner.
Australia, after a decade of mistakes, built its wagyu industry to such a high standard that it now sells the bulk of its carcasses to Japan. But the Japanese are high-grading, taking only meat at the top end of the marbling scale.
What to do with the rest, Blackmore wondered.
Chandler, hoping to add something special to the pan-Asian menu at Bonsai Bistro, explored American-bred wagyu-Angus cattle from suppliers such as the Boise-based Snake River Farms. But the call of more authentic Kobe kept pulling at his taste buds, and he began to research the Australian markets.
"What do they do with all the rest?" Chandler wondered.
Johnson, the importer in Seattle, had the same thought and began to seek out wagyu that scored in the 4-to-8 range on the 12-point marbling chart. This is the meat he's been selling to a steadily growing clientele of Northwest restaurants.
A LITTLE HISTORY WHILE THE PAN HEATS UP & r & For a thousand years, the people of Japan were prohibited from eating four-legged animals. Buddhism played a role, but so did the value of cattle as work animals instead of as wok fodder. During the Meiji Restoration (1852-1912), the emperor rescinded the ban and encouraged people to eat a more Western diet, writes Prof. John Longworth in his history, Beef in Japan.
There may have been an underground cult of Kobe beef eaters involving shoguns and going back to feudal times, but Longworth admits the evidence is scant.
Kobe beef -- where the genetic propensity of fat marbling in the wagyu meets highly specified feeding and growth regimens -- is a more modern construct.
A LITTLE SCIENCE WHILE THE PAN HEATS UP MORE & r & Most beef we eat is slaughtered at 17 to 24 months of age after the animals have been pushed into a high-grain, high-calorie diet for rapid weight gain.
Wagyu raised for Kobe beef, by contrast, are killed at 33 to 36 months after a diet high in roughage for slow but steady weight gain. And their demise is "more like a surgical procedure than a slaughter," says Seattle importer Johnson. Instead of U.S.-style industrial slaughterhouses, the Australian wagyu industry has followed the Japanese model of many small, meticulously clean abattoirs located near ranches, Johnson says. No mad cows here, folks.
"So they are calm, happy cattle until they meet their maker," the chef, Chandler, says.
The emphasis is on stress-free cattle who are never rushed from place to place, have toys to play with and perhaps music in the background.
A LITTLE MYTH BUSTING & r & The beer was strictly for science, not pleasure. The yeast in the beer would keep the wagyu's stomachs active even during hot weather -- an important technique Japanese farmers used to keep the slow-but-steady weight gain going in all seasons. Australian and American wagyu and wagyu-crosses may get molasses for the same purpose, but no beer.
And the massage? "It's a good story but it's a myth," the Australian rancher Blackmore told Australian journalist Siu Ling Hui. Wagyu in Japan either a) didn't have have enough pasture to be properly exercised and thus were rubbed down to keep muscles loose, or b) were kept in small enclosures and farmers regularly used rice straw to rub manure out of their coats.
THE PAN IS READY & r & History, science, myth ... it's all going to come together in an intensely hot skillet or wok.
"We had to completely change our cooking style," says Chandler. For several months, the Bonsai Bistro has been using Kobe beef -- largely unadvertised -- for all beef dishes on the menu as the kitchen crew gets used to working with it. The formal unveiling of Kobe on the menu will be this month, Chandler says.
"You don't want to overcook it. It has such a high marbling content that if you overcook it, all that buttery fat will melt out and you'll be left with balsawood," Chandler says.
At Bonsai, the Australian-imported wagyu is "thrown in the wok and it's blasted at 500 to 600 degrees" Chandler says. "We don't use any oil -- it hydroplanes on its own."
The meat is largely served in dishes such as Mongolian Beef and is cut "as thin as sugar packets," the chef says. It's seared in the hot pan, almost instantly removed and reintroduced only after all the other ingredients are ready.
Bonsai also does "a center-of-the-plate steak," Chandler says, featuring a 10-ounce culotte cut of wagyu top sirloin. This bigger hunk of meat is given a curry rub and is also simply seared in a hot wok, then rested either on a plate or in a warming oven to finish.
During a recent visit to Bonsai Bistro, both the steak and the Mongolian beef were incredibly moist and flavorful.
Chandler wasn't sure if wagyu, with its notoriously high prices, was going to work in the Inland Northwest. But he finds that it pencils out nicely in a pan-Asian restaurant that mainly uses small amounts of meat either in stir fry or as sashimi at the Bistro's sushi bar.
"We get to see the reaction at the sushi bar, and people go nuts over it," Chandler says.