Eating in Japan can be a remarkable experience. The preparation and presentation of food is regarded as an art form. For many dishes there are strict conventions in regard to the appearance (colour and arrangement), flavour and aroma as well as palatability (texture and tenderness).
Kobe Beef, photographed in Japan
Originally meat, especially beef, was used so sparingly that it became little more than a seasoning agent for the vegetables and noodles which made up the bulk of the dish. The traditional beef dishes which have evolved really have no counterparts in Western cooking and exemplify the unique features of Japanese cuisine.
The wafer-thin slice is the most common form in which Japanese housewives buy beef, especially in the colder months. These thin slices are utilized in a great variety of dishes. The best known to foreigners are
shabu-shabu, but there are many variants collectively known as
nabemono (i.e. dishes served in a pot). All of these dishes involved boiling or broiling the beef at or near the table. When cooked in this way, beef needs to be well marbled with fat to prevent it becoming “shoe leather.” Even the most tender cuts of young beef shrivel up and become tough and unappetizing morsels if the beef is not adequately marbled.
Almost the same dish, but this is Scottish | Kobe beef from Lucies Farm, photographed in sunny Worcestershire
Of course, getting the meat cut into wafer-thin slices is often also a problem outside Japan. The best solution is to freeze the meat almost solid and then slice it with a standard salami slicing machine (this is how we do it at Lucies Farm) or a very sharp knife and a steady hand.
Because the Japanese like to cook these dishes at the table, the odour given off while the beef is cooking must not be offensive. To a Japanese, the cooking smell from green crop (or pasture fattened) beef is offensive. Japanese people often attribute the characteristic cooking odour which occurs when grass fattened beef is boiled to the fat component of the meat. They find the yellowish fat unattractive and argue that this is the source of the unfavourable cooking aroma.
The real problem is more subtle. Well-marbled grain fattened beef cooks faster at a lower temperature than meat with less fat between (and within) the muscle bundles. The fat melts and cooks the protein fibrils in the muscle bundles without causing excessive amino acid breakdown. Grass fattened beef with less inter- and intra-muscle bundled fat over-heats in the boiling liquid. The sulphur-containing amino acids in the muscle protein begin to break down and a characteristic pungent (sulphurous) odour is given off.
Three broad cooking techniques which have been growing in popularity since the late 1960’s are grills and barbeques (
teriyaki, teppan yaki), hamburgers and other mince preparations, and stews and curries. Barbeque style beef (
yakiniku) grilled indoors and served with heavy sauces is especially popular. In both households and restaurants, cooking is usually carried out at or near the table. With these forms of cuisine, marbling is not as important and there is much less chance that the offensive odours from pasture fattened beef will be noticed.
Beef is not often cooked in the Japanese home in the form of either a joint (roast) or as a large steak. Furthermore, when it is prepared (usually at a restaurant) in larger joints and steaks, the Japanese customer is likely to request that it be medium to well-done. There is a strong resistance to roasts and steaks exhibiting the characteristic “blood” colour of underdone beef.
For more information about Japan --- particularly Japanese culture and customs --- please visit Japan for the Uninvited.
Beef in Japan by Prof. John W. Longworth, University of Queensland Press, 1983. This book is currently out-of-print, and this information is used here with the kind permission of Prof. Longworth.
If any of this information has changed in the past 21 or so years, we would greatly appreciate it if you would please e-mailus. We will gladly update this information.