Kobe Beef and Nada Sake - A Culinary Affair
- Published: Sep 11 2023
- Last updated:
Japanese cuisine is known for its tradition, precision, and amazing flavors. From the art of sushi to the joy of ramen, every dish tells a story. Join us as we head down to a wonderful city in Japan’s Hyogo Prefecture to learn more about two of the country’s most famous—and delicious—exports, Kobe beef and Nada sake.
*This article was written in collaboration with the KOBE TOURISM BUREAU.
Kobe: A City With Character
Welcome to Kobe, a charming port city nestled in the western part of Japan. With a population of around 1.5 million people, it's a place where tradition meets modernity. Kobe set sail as Japan's very first international trading port in 1868, and since then, it's bloomed into a global city that's a melting pot of different cultures.
What makes Kobe a must-visit destination?
Imagine a city that has history etched into its streets, yet exuding a confident cosmopolitan vibe. The downtown area, stretching about 2 kilometers from one end to another, is a cozy nook nestled between the sea and mountains. And within this urban oasis, visitors will find attractions like the Meriken Park and Harborland area, a perfect blend of nature and contemporary architecture, and the Kitano area with its European-style architecture that looks like something out of a fairy tale.
For a change of cultures, Nankinmachi (Kobe’s Chinatown) is a vibrant spot that celebrates diversity. Picture lively sidewalks, the aroma of mouthwatering delicacies in the air, and a colorful atmosphere that's impossible to ignore.
Nature-lovers will be impressed by the beauty of Mt. Rokko and Mt. Maya. These mountains are a perfect day trip getaway with breathtaking views and tranquil trails. And there’s no better way to relax after all that walking around than with a soak in the gorgeous Arima Onsen, one of Japan's most famous hot spring resorts.
Best of all, Kobe is only less than an hour away by train from both Osaka and Kyoto, so getting here is a breeze.
It’s a city that bridges the past and the present, waiting to be explored — and explore we will, because besides its urban and nature attractions, Kobe is also famous for its local cuisine.
There’s a reason why basketball legend Kobe Bryant was named after this city, and it’s because of the fascinating food culture that has captured the imagination of foodies around the world.
So, pop on your curiosity hat, slap a napkin on your lap and let’s dive into the wonderful world of Kobe’s beef and sake.
Kobe Beef: A Culinary Masterpiece
Like most legends, the story of Kobe beef is an epic journey from humble beginnings to global glory.
Up until the late 1800s, cows in Japan were used almost exclusively for agriculture and transportation. Meat was not on the menu for most, due a long-standing restriction that was put in place by the Emperor Tenmu in 675 A.D.
But that all changed when Emperor Meiji assumed power in 1868 and the Japanese government finally ended their two centuries of isolation and began adopting Western practices, which included adding meat as part of their regular diet.
It was then that one day, a presumably very hungry Englishman bought an entire cow from some local farmers, promptly ate it, and had a mind-blowing culinary experience. Soon word of this mouthwatering marbled meat spread and so did demand for it among the foreign traders, and in time it came to be known as “Kobe beef.”
Kobe beef comes from a special breed of cattle called Tajima that is exclusively bred in Hyogo. The secret to Kobe beef's exceptional quality is in the unique and meticulous production process — from pasture to plate, every step is orchestrated with care, resulting in a meat that is arguably the best in the world.
It all starts with purebred calves from this specific bloodline being born and raised until they’re 9 months old. Then, they’re sold off to feeding farms to live a life of lavish comfort. There, the cattle enjoy the equivalent of a five-star bovine resort where their diet includes rice straw, grains, and even occasional treats like corn.
This carefully curated diet, combined with stress reduction techniques and quality living conditions, results in its signature marbling – those fine lines of delicious intramuscular fat that melt during cooking, infusing it with a buttery texture and a depth of flavor that's unrivaled.
Every aspect of the production process is marked by attention to detail. The cattle get regular veterinary care, are constantly monitored, and lead lives as good as any animal could possibly get, although, not as good as some of the common myths portray.
For one, no, the cows aren't sipping beer or attending symphonies. Despite being cute stories that we want to believe (because who doesn’t like the idea of drunk cows dancing to Mozart), the truth is that the secret to Kobe beef’s legendary quality is simply a legendary dedication to the process — no beer or Bach needed.
Once the cows reach the age of 28 to 32 months on average, they’re humanely slaughtered at one of the specialized slaughterhouses in Hyogo and carefully graded based on these qualities:
・Beef Marbling Score (BMS) of 6 or higher
・Meat quality score of A or B
・Gross carcass weight of 499.9 kg or less
From ribeye to sirloin, each cut of Kobe beef is a masterpiece to be savored, and when it comes to cooking this delicate meat, less is more. The mantra here is simplicity, with most chefs opting for minimal seasoning and prep to let the beef's natural flavor and richness shine.
A delicacy as delightful as Kobe beef deserves a great pairing, and the city happens to have that perfectly covered with another of its famous exports — Nada sake.
Nada Sake: Crafting Perfection
Sake, the iconic Japanese rice wine, has quickly grown from a local delicacy to an international sensation, partly thanks to the heightened interest in Japan and its culture from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
And when it comes to sake production, few places in the world rival the five areas in Hyogo Prefecture collectively known as Nadagogo. This historic brewing region, whose name rolls playfully off the tongue and translates to “five Nada sake production areas,” consists of Imazu, Nishinomiya, Uozaki, Mikage, and Nishigo.
The origins of Nada's sake production can be traced back to the Edo period (1603-1867), a time of rapid growth and urbanization in Japan. As the population of Edo (modern-day Tokyo) grew, so did the demand for sake. While other sake-producing regions like Fushimi and Itami were more well-known, Nada was a latecomer with a strategic advantage — the proximity of its breweries to the coast.
This proximity allowed for easy shipping of sake to various parts of the country, especially the bustling city of Edo where the popularity of sake grew rapidly. Nada sake was known for its refined taste, and by the late Edo period, it was estimated that around 80% of the sake consumed in Edo hailed from Nada.
The success of Nada's sake industry can be attributed to a few key factors. The coastal location enabled efficient shipping, and the region's winter winds, known as "Rokko oroshi," provided natural cooling for the sake production process. The steady supply of mineral-rich water from the Rokko mountains and access to abundant rice from nearby ports also proved ideal for brewing sake.
The later introduction of Yamada Nishiki rice in 1923 — a strain perfectly suited for sake production that is mainly grown in Hyogo Prefecture — further enhanced the quality of sake produced in the region.
Nada's water, known as miyamizu, is another secret to its success. This water, rich in minerals yet low in iron, was found to be the secret ingredient behind the superior taste and longevity of Nada sake. The discovery came after a sake brewer's relentless efforts to replicate the taste of their Nishinomiya brewery at another location. When the water from Nishinomiya was transported to the second brewery, the taste improved significantly, leading to the realization that miyamizu was the key.
Over the decades, Nada's sake legacy has not only been preserved by the local toji (master sake brewers) but also innovatively adapted to changing times. In the late 19th century, the introduction of steam engines for brewing and the adoption of glass bottles for packaging marked significant advancements. But despite the changing landscape, Nada's sake makers still adhere carefully to traditional brewing methods while keeping an eye open to new things.
Today, Nada is synonymous with famous sake brands such as Hakutsuru, Fukuju, Kiku Masamune, and more. Each of these brands offer a blend of affordability and exceptional taste, making them popular choices among sake enthusiasts.
Masterpiece Meets Perfection
There are many ways to enjoy this delightful duo, and Korean YouTuber Jimmy Kim and Shizuka from Japan By Food recently had the opportunity to try some of them firsthand with a visit to Kobe.
Finding the Beef at Teppanyaki Kobe Fuji
When Kobe beef and Nada sake come together, culinary magic happens. Jimmy’s first stop was Teppanyaki Kobe Fuji in Sannomiya, where he tucked into a Kobe beef and Tajima beef teppanyaki combo, paired with Nada’s Fukuju sake. And for seconds, he had a Kobe beef curry rice and Kenbishi sake combo.
“I’m not saying this because I’m sitting in front of them (the restaurant staff) — this is 100% the best piece of meat that I’ve had,” said Jimmy after his first bite.
The delicate sweetness and umami of the Nada sake elevates the flavor of the Kobe beef, with the sake's crisp acidity cutting through the meat's decadent marbling and refreshing the palate for the next bite. This synergy of flavors is enhanced by the umami notes in both the beef and sake that go beautifully together.
If you’re new to Kobe beef and Nada sake and want to try both, this is a great way to start.
For Sake’s Sake: Shushinkan Breweries Tour
To get a fuller appreciation for Nada sake and how it’s produced, we recommend taking a sake brewery tour while you’re here. Jimmy headed down to the Kobe Shushinkan Breweries which produces Fukuju sake after lunch, where he learned about the history and craftsmanship behind this famous brand. Although some of the exhibits are only in Japanese, they have many videos and materials in English for international guests.
If the tour leaves you wanting more, the Kobe Shushinkan Breweries also has a restaurant, Sakabayashi, where you can sit down for a relaxing meal in a traditional Japanese setting. Here they feature a seasonal menu that changes monthly, alongside staples such as the sake soba which Jimmy tried.
Nadagogo Sakedokoro: A Stand-Up Dining Experience
Meanwhile, Shizuka from Japan By Food stopped by Nadagogo Sakedokoro, a popular sake community spot in the Higashinada ward, to try out a set that combines different types of Nada sake with food pairings that reveal different dimensions of flavor with each sip and bite.
But of course, there’s also Kobe beef on the menu. One popular way to enjoy Kobe beef is sukiyaki — thin slices of meat simmered with vegetables and other ingredients such as tofu in a shallow iron pot in a sweet and savory broth. Shizuka enjoyed Nadagogo Sakedokoro’s delicious take on this dish paired with a Sakuramasamune sake that’s made specially to go with beef called "Bonds Well with Beef Junmai Ginjo,” with a slight sweetness and deeper undertones that highlights the flavor of the meat.
“I never knew sake pairing could be so fun!” she said, impressed by her new gourmet discovery.
A Culinary Match Made in Kobe
Kobe beef and Nada sake are both amazing dining experiences that can be enjoyed on their own, but there’s something extra special when they’re put together. The combination of Kobe beef and Nada sake is not only a culinary tour de force — it's a celebration of the heritage, culture, and artistry of Kobe City.
If you're all about finding an amazing food adventure for your next trip to Japan, a trip to Kobe to savor these two local specialties is the perfect way to kick things off.
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.