|Here's the beef: Kobe cows are being raised for the first time in Viet Nam. — Photo courtesy Kobe Beef Corporation
by Hong Thuy
The cows are made to drink beer, receive a massage with rice wine and listen to the classical music of Mozart and Chopin.
This, in a nutshell, is how the world-famous Kobe beef of Japan is produced. Renowned among meat lovers for its flavour, tenderness, and fatty but well-marbled texture, Kobe beef is considered to be the epitome of fine dining, and it is no wonder that it costs a few hundred US dollars per kilo.
The good news is that Kobe beef, processed from the meat of the Tajima-gyu breed of cattle found in Japan's Hyogo Prefecture, will soon be produced in Viet Nam.
Named after Kobe, the capital city of Hyogo Prefecture, the beef will be processed from cattle now being raised in Viet Nam's first ever Kobe beef farm in Tan Lac Commune, Lam Dong Province.
Nguyen Tri Duc Vu, director of Kobe Beef Corporation, the company that owns the farm, said the meat would become available to consumers by 2015, but the quantity would be limited at first because the farm could produce only 50 cows per year.
"These Vietnamese-raised cattle are only 50 per cent Kobe cows, which means they are half-Kobe and half-Vietnamese by blood. It will take some time to produce purebred Japanese Kobe cows," Vu added.
The first generation of hybrid Kobe cows will be bred with the DNA of American wagyu to produce the second generation, which will have 75 per cent Kobe DNA in its blood. The same process will be applied to the second generation to produce a third generation with 100 per cent Kobe DNA.
The quality score for Japanese meat is based on four factors: marbling; colour and brightness; firmness and texture; and fat colour, luster and quality. Each factor is graded from A1 to A5, with A5 as the highest score.
"The company can only guarantee a Kobe beef quality score of A3 next year. But once the purebred Kobe cows are produced, probably by 2020, the company can guarantee a quality score of A5," Vu said.
Founded in 2009, the company began operations by breeding domestic wagyu cows, the first generation of hybrid Kobe cows bred from the DNA of American wagyu (Kobe style) beef and Vietnamese dairy cows.
Wagyu, which literally means Japanese cows, were imported from Japan's Tottori Prefecture to the United States in 1976 and cross-bred with Angus cattle to create the American wagyu beef.
Wagyu is classified into four breeds: Japanese black, Japanese brown, Japanese poll, and Japanese shorthorn. Tajima-gyu cows from which Kobe beef comes belong to the Japanese black breed.
While all wagyu beef is considered to be of high quality, only the meat of Tajima-gyu cows that meets the strict lineage and quality criteria can be called "Kobe beef".
Asked why the company did not cross-breed Japanese Kobe cows with Vietnamese dairy cows, Vu said it was because the corporation could not find a Japanese suitable partner to do so.
Company officials declined to reveal the total investment in the farm, but Dang Van Thanh, founder and chairman of Thanh Thanh Cong Group, estimated this to be worth several million dollar.
After entering into a joint venture with Japanese partners to set up the farm in 2009, the company has multiplied its first generation hybrid Kobe cows to nearly 100 heads, from 100 mothering cows.
It was difficult to achieve this figure because the cows' resistance to diseases was lower than that of local breeds, said Vu.
"During the first phase, the death rate of the calves was as high as 20 per cent. But over time, we have learnt to deal with this," Vu added.
He also noted that his company viewed its capability to persuade its foreign partner, representing three generations of Japanese Kobe beef breeders, to enter into a joint venture with it as a critical and significant achievement.
It is the responsibility of the Japanese partner's experts to inspect the breeding process and ensure that the cows are raised in line with Japanese technology, from preparing facilities to producing food and making sure that the meat of each cow meets the quality criteria of Kobe beef.
Vu quoted the Japanese experts as saying the company's hybrid Kobe cows were developing well to their full weight of about 800-1,000kg each, and in accordance with Japanese standards. The cows are now 18 months and weight roughly 500kg.
The experts predicted that the Vietnamese-raised cattle would achieve a quality score of A3.
While Kobe beef can sell for up to $170 per kilo in Japan, Vu said the company would be selling the meat for about $100 per kilo.
"That price will bring in nearly $50,000 per cow, as we use only 400 to 500 kilos of meat from it," he added.
The cows live in luxury and are fed on a rich diet consisting of broken rice grains, as well as buckwheat, maize plant's trunks, soybeans and cashew nut residues. They are also made to drink beer instead of water.
They are suitable for rearing in cool weather, at temperatures averaging 20-22oC, like in Lam Dong, Vu said.
The value of Kobe beef must also be attributed to the mysterious rearing techniques which reportedly help in cultivating the meat's delectable flavour and texture.
There are three major rearing techniques. First, the cows are made to drink beer to increase their appetites.
Second, they are massaged every night for one month before being slaughtered, as a replacement for exercise that is difficult to accomplish in tight living quarters and to further accentuate the marbling for which Kobe beef is well-known.
Third, they are made to listen to classical music while eating, to help them relax and further improve their appetites.
Vu said the months before the cows were slaughtered were a critical time as the cows were expected to gain weight and produce beef with pronounced marbling. The massage that the cows receive at this time is expected to move the fat layer from under their skin and onto their fibre.
"This phase will decide if Kobe beef will have a well-marbled appearance. Otherwise, the marbling becomes curdled and the price of the beef falls as a result," he added.
Though very few customers are aware of the existence of a Kobe cow farm in Lam Dong, Vu said he was not worried about domestic consumption once the beef is sold in local markets next year.
"Some Japanese restaurant owners have approached us to make reservations for the purchase of our Kobe beef. Because the number of cows for sale is limited, we take care not to advertise too widely," he added.
The company is targetting middle-income Vietnamese earners in the three big cities of Ha Noi, Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang, Vu said, adding that it was also planning to enter into deals with some farm households in the region to raise Kobe cows in an attempt to further reduce the price of the beef.
The company has selected five first-generation Kobe cows for breeding the second generation. Once the second-generation calves are born, the company will take responsibility for rearing them in the first four months before entrusting them to the farmers, who will look after the cattle until they reach the age of 26 months.
The company will then take over from the farmers and fatten the cows before they are sold.
"Raising Kobe cows requires a much longer time and a stricter food regimen, so the company will supply the food and closely monitor farmers who want to rear the cows," Vu said. — VNS