Wadakin: Zip 515-0083, Matsuzaka-shi, Naka-machi 1878, tel: 0598-21-1188
In Japan, A Steak Secret To Rival Kobe
I wasn't sure whether to be insulted or impressed when, seconds after I had stepped out of his barn here, Kubo Mikichi took out a dustpan and broom and swept up after me. The barn is home to six large black cows. Shouldn't I be scraping my shoes instead?
But the cows housed in Mr. Kubo's barn are not just any old cows. They are Matsuzaka cattle, destined to become what some consider to be the finest beef in Japan.
No, this isn't Kobe beef, which in the minds of many Americans is the best in Japan. Cattle from Kobe, Americans have heard, are carefully bred, raised on special feed, even given massages; Kobe steaks are sold for astonishing prices. But here in Japan, Kobe has a rival: Matsuzaka beef, one of this country's best-kept secrets.
Farmers like Mr. Kubo raise their highly prized cattle in this tiny town, just inland from one of the more spectacular wrinkles in Japan's glorious Pacific coastline, under conditions that a Park Avenue Pekingese might envy. And the meat, densely marbled and butter-tender, is difficult to come by, even in Tokyo, because only 2,500 Matsuzaka cows are slaughtered each year. It commands prices as high as Kobe's -- up to $60 a pound in a meat market, if you can find it.
There is something distinctively different about this beef from coddled virgin cows, its fans say, though myth and mystique may be just as important to how it is regarded as how it tastes. Matsuzaka cows are slaughtered when they are 3 years old, an unusually long life for cows bred for beef. ''They are alive longer than any other beef cattle, and that makes a difference in the taste and texture of their meat,'' said Shizuo Kashiwagi, the owner of a meat market not far from Matsuzaka. ''And in the fat.''
For Japanese beef eaters, choosing between Kobe and Matsuzaka beef ''is like choosing between Alaska king crab and Maryland crab,'' said Elizabeth Andoh, an American journalist and the director of a culinary arts center in Tokyo. ''It's very much a matter of personal taste, and how you intend to cook it.''
In the few restaurants where it is served in Japan, diners pay dearly. Okahan, an elegant restaurant in Tokyo, serves Matsuzaka beef as part of a sukiyaki or shabu shabu course which includes hors d'oeuvres and side dishes, for 16,000 yen, or $128. A grilled steak costs about $144. Ginza Sato, also in Tokyo, offers fillets grilled over charcoal for $48 and $64. Several other restaurants in Tokyo serve the beef only through orders placed in advance.
''Eating Kobe is like eating foie gras, where Matsuzaka is more like eating beef,'' recalled Ono Tadashi, the chef and an owner of Sono in Manhattan, who first tasted Matsuzaka beef years ago and found it similar to Kobe beef in taste. He said he might prefer the Matsuzaka, which is very fatty, for cooking because it had a beefier flavor.
In the beef-mystique war, Kobe may have gained the upper hand through an accident of geography. ''Kobe is a port city,'' said Matsuda Takeo, whose family raises 1,800 Matsuzaka cows on its farms here and has a restaurant, Wadakin, that is probably the most famous purveyor of Matsuzaka beef. ''Ships stopping to pick up food and water soon learned that there were good beef cattle on the outskirts of the city, and they carried the news with them.''
There is no port in Matsuzaka, which may be why its beef has remained a secret, known perhaps to global gourmands but few others outside Japan. Mr. Matsuda's great-great-grandfather produced the first of what has come to be called Matsuzaka beef and if a cow isn't raised here, it cannot lay claim to the pedigree.
At the height of Japan's economic bubble in 1989, the championship cow in the annual Matsuzaka competition sold for about $392,000 at current exchange rates.
''Anyplace in the world would consider that to be a high price,'' said Chuck Lambert, chief economist of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association in Washington.
The best cows still command prices that impress beef cattle producers everywhere. Last year, when Japan was sliding into yet another recession, the champion sold for $81,600.
But putting a finger on what distinguishes Matsuzaka from Kobe and other top-quality beef ''brands'' like Maeda and Omi, is tricky. Other top-quality beef cattle also get massages from time to time and may drink beer.
Matsuzaka's stature is built largely on its excellent quality but is also enhanced and reinforced by myth. For instance, before I arrived in Japan four years ago, I had heard that Matsuzaka cows not only received massages and tippled beer, but also listened to Mozart piped into their barns. The music turned out to be a tall tale, but one that continues to circulate nevertheless.
Mr. Kubo, the farmer, says the secret is largely genetic. Matsuzaka, Kobe and other fine beef cattle come from breeders in the Tajima Valley, some 150 kilometers from Matsuzaka. Tajima is the home of Japanese wagyu, or beef cattle, which, legend has it, journeyed to Japan from the Korean peninsula in the company of Ame-no-Hiboko, a local divinity, in the fifth century B.C. Elsewhere in Japan, the four breeds of wagyu -- black, red, no-horn and shorthorn -- have been bred with cattle imported from Europe and the United States. But the lineage of Tajima cows is carefully protected. Each of Mr. Kubo's cows has papers, stamped with a nose print, that trace its bloodlines back several generations.
Mr. Kubo, however, cannot comment on the beef's taste because he does not eat it -- he becomes too attached to his cows. ''They are domestic animals, I know, and they are raised to be eaten,'' Mr. Kubo said. ''But the thought gives me a very bad feeling.''
Mr. Matsuda said he thought the difference between Matsuzaka and other beef was ''climate and water -- that's all.'' Indeed, many say that Matsuzaka's reputation is built on little more than mystique.
''There is not a huge difference between Matsuzaka and Kobe beef,'' said Kishi Asako of Tokyo, a well-known food critic and writer. ''Both are high-quality meats, with lots of very evenly distributed marbling.'' She said that if anything distinguishes Matsuzaka, it is that even though the meat is riddled with fat, one tastes the flavor and feels the texture of the meat only.
Mr. Kashiwagi, the founder and owner of Asahiya, a big, bustling, old-fashioned meat market just north of here in Tsu, insists that the virginity of the cows is a deciding factor in Matsuzaka's supremacy. Kobe and other fine beef comes from steers, as well as cows whose virginity is not so carefully guarded. 'It's the virginity,'' he said. ''That, and their age.''
But it is difficult for a visitor to see the nurturing the cows receive and not think it contributes something to their distinction. Before entering one of the barns where the Matsuda family's cows reside, I had to take off my shoes, put on a pair of pristine white rubber boots, walk through disinfectant and wash my hands. ''Hoof-and-mouth,'' the manager explained.
At Mr. Kubo's farm, electric fans were running in the barns but not in his house, which has no air-conditioning. The brilliant sunshine pounded down on the rice paddies and fields, but the cows were all inside the barns. ''Too hot,'' he explained. ''They're black, you see.''
Exercise is not encouraged. ''The most important thing is, at an early stage the cow must eat a lot of high-fiber foods like hay, wheat bran, corn and soybean byproducts,'' he said. ''That stretches the stomach and makes it big.''
To encourage his cows to eat even more, Mr. Kubo, like other Matsuzaka cow owners, sees that they guzzle beer every week. Some cows develop a taste for it, others have to be force-fed.
Each of his cows has her own stall of roughly 17 square feet. The rails that form the stalls are made of wood and wooden pegs, and the water troughs are plastic, not metal. ''They might scratch themselves on metal,'' Mr. Kubo explained.
All this pampering is expensive, so Mr. Kubo supplements his income by trimming the hooves and horns of other farmers' animals. This sideline is a necessity: his income swings wildly, depending on whether he produces a championship cow. Matsuzaka cows that are not among the final 50 contestants in the annual competition sell for about $9,600. ''It's gambling,'' Mr. Kubo said.
Each fall, he and his wife travel to Tajima and select five or six heifers that are about 8 months old to raise, or rather, spoil rotten in Matsuzaka. For the next few years, they are treated to ''massages,'' rubdowns with a stiff brush, every other day or so, a practice said to enhance the even distribution of fat throughout their bodies.
Matsuzaka cows become so accustomed to human attention and affection -- Mr. Kubo's cows stick their heads through the slats of their stalls and all but ask to be petted -- that they are led quite easily to the slaughterhouse, a trip that other, less coddled cattle vigorously resist.
The Cadillac treatment is expensive, and raising Matsuzaka cows is to some degree a labor of love, even for large producers like the Matsuda family. They make money because they sell virtually all of their stock through their restaurant.
The calves Mr. Kubo buys in Tajima cost between $6,400 and $6,800, and he figures he spends $3,200 to $4,000 on each one over her lifetime. Unless he produces potential champions, he cannot make a profit. No wonder, then, that most farmers raise only a couple of heifers at a time.
The annual November competition is the event of the year here. Getting into the final round is very often the difference between make or break for farmers like Mr. Kubo: finalists will fetch around $24,000 apiece.
Many of the finalists end up behind the counter at Asahiya, Mr. Kashiwagi's shop. Between 1990 and 2000, Mr. Kashiwagi purchased nine of the last 10 Matsuzaka champions, paying a total of $858,000 at current exchange rates. ''I don't make money on these cows, that's not why I spend like this to get the champion,'' he said. ''I try to drive prices up to encourage the producers to keep producing great beef cows. It's not such easy work, raising a Matsuzaka cow.''
The day before I visited his shop, he had purchased a side of Matsuzaka beef, and he had his workers pull it out of the cold storage room. They sawed it open to reveal the thickly marbled meat, surrounded by layers of fat so white it could have been coconut. ''Look,'' Mr. Kashiwagi urged. ''Have you ever seen anything like it?''
He figured that the side would produce about 220 pieces of meat and that all of it would be sold before noon the next day. The most lucrative part of the cow will be the innards, or offal. Brains, in particular, are the source of much of the concern outside Japan about bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease.
''We don't have worries about that here,'' Mr. Kashiwagi said. ''People like the offal because it provides the best indication of the health of the cow it came from.''
I tried four different kinds of Matsuzaka steak at Wadakin and found it very, very good, even though I prefer my meat lean. You do not taste or feel the fat when you chew; it's very flavorful. My one complaint is that you can't eat a lot if it; it's too rich.
Mr. Matsuda of Wadakin believes, however, that standards for beef are slipping in Japan, as more and more regional beef comes onto the market and cheaper, imported meat is more readily available. ''Even in Japan, people don't really know what's good beef any more,'' he said.
''They think anything soft is prime beef, but that's just one criterion. The fat must be sweet, and the red meat must have the power to retain the juices.''
His cows eat a custom-blended diet of wheat, soybean byproducts, hay and corn. ''The basic ingredients are the same everywhere,'' Mr. Matsuda said. ''The difference is in how they are blended, and that's our special and secret formula.''
But there is no such formula for blending the top-secret feeds, beer, massages and tender-loving care that go into the raising of Matsuzaka cows. ''The bottom line,'' said Mr. Kubo, ''is that you just don't know if a champion's a champion until you slaughter it.''