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What to eat and drink in Kobe, Japan

What to eat and drink in Kobe, Japan

by Chris Osburn 08 January 2019

Famous for its incredible beef, the city of Kobe has become a legendary destination for foodies worldwide. Chris Osburn visits this special part of Japan and lets us in on what to eat where if you’re in the area.

A week in Japan’s western inland sea region of Setouchi was a tasty tour of highly anticipated indulgences and unexpectedly delicious surprises. My days were split between two cities, Kobe and Hiroshima, with short trips to their outskirts and nearby countryside. To say I ate well would be an understatement.

As with the only other time I had visited Japan (Tokyo, Kyoto and Hakone back in 2012), I found it was practically impossible to have a bad meal, no matter the price point or venue. Whether hunched over a grill in a hut at the back of an industrial lot on Hiroshima Bay for a breakfast of roasted oysters, or admiring the precision of a private chef grilling top-grade Kobe beef for lunch in an exclusive upscale restaurant, quality and provenance of ingredients were accorded the utmost respect and value for money was all but a given. Read on to discover the best bites I experienced during my time in the meaty metropolis of Kobe, where I was keen to get to the meat of the matter of what makes this city’s namesake beef so coveted.

Wedged between a mountain and the sea, Kobe is a densely populated urban environment. With more than 1.5 million people, it’s the sixth-largest city in Japan. Kobe beef doesn’t actually come from Kobe, but the surrounding farmland of Hyogo Prefecture where Kobe is the capital, and the meat is sourced from the Tajima strain of Japanese Black cattle reared there. But just because it’s the right cow from the right place doesn’t make it Kobe beef. Beef meeting these two basic criteria is then scored on its marbling and texture, according to rules set out by the Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Promotion Association. Only the best of that lot can be certified as Kobe beef. There’s plenty more fact and legend to the story, but that’s the gist of why Kobe beef is sought after for its balanced flavour and tenderness.

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Kobe's most famous food by far is its world-class beef, known for its iconic marbling and melt-in-the-mouth texture
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The beef is served in every way imaginable in the city, including as a 'western-style' cutlet sandwich

I had the pleasure of trying Kobe beef a variety of ways during my visit: as a flash-fried fillet steak, in a cutlet sandwich, in a beef and potato croquette and as tsukudani (preserved with salt, sugar and pickled ginger). Steak was by far my preferred preparation – and I reckon the best for savouring the fullest expression of the meat. I had it for lunch (with a bit of kitchen theatre) at Ishida, a quiet teppanyaki restaurant hidden away on the third floor of (to my foreign eyes) a seemingly nondescript commercial building. The meat served was of the highest ranking (A5/BMS-12 if you’re wondering) with a texture more like butter than beef, and the colour when uncooked was a perfect meld of white and light pink. Every nutty sweet melt-in-the-mouth morsel of my 150g cut was an epiphany on the palate.

As transcendent as my teppanyaki lunch was, a cutlet sandwich at ‘western-style’ restaurant, Mon, proved the more memorable meal. Family-owned for eighty years, Mon’s claim to fame is for being the oldest western-style restaurant in Kobe. With its dark wood panelling, vintage bric-a-brac behind the bar and tableside condiment trays of grated Parmesan cheese, Tabasco sauce and soy sauce, the scene appeared a weird but invited amalgamation of what an eatery in North America or Europe is supposed to be like. The cutlet sandwich, with panko-crusted Kobe beef on slices of fluffy white bread with a layer of tangy homemade sauce (not unlike Worcestershire sauce), was super moist, yielding with each bite. I was sure the meat had been tenderised or marinated in some manner. Not so, pledged Mon’s owner; the beef was just that soft and succulent.

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Beef and potato croquettes are a popular street food in the heart of kobe
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Kobe beef also appears in soups and hotpots, sliced thinly and gently poached in the broth

More popular to my eye than what was on offer at Ishida and Mon were the beef and potato croquettes served from the tiny takeaway window at Moriya Shoten, a butchery in the heart of Kobe specializing in Kobe beef. Here a swiftly moving queue seemed to go on forever with an all-walks-of-life ensemble of folks lined up to place an order. Moriya Shoten purportedly sells 2,000 croquettes a day, and at around ¥90 (roughly 60p) for this street food bargain, I soon realised what the fuss was about when I made it to the window to buy one for myself.

As for the tsukudani, it was good but so seasoned and gingery I felt the Kobe beef was lost in the mix. The opportunity to taste it was pretty special though. I was at 110-year-old Kobe beef shop Tatsuya, where fillets and sirloins are king but a range of other cuts are available. Kobe beef jerky intrigued me the most, but thin slices for shabu shabu (hot pot) were what the shop’s owner recommended.

Beyond beef

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Hokodo Coffee House has been serving cups of coffee to the citizens of Kobe for over 150 years
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Sobameshi is a carb-lovers dream combo of rice, noodles and savoury pancakes cooked quickly and served hot

Of course, there’s more to Kobe’s cuisine than beef. As a visitor with only a few days in the city, I found browsing the food halls of Daimaru Department Store great for scoping out all sorts of other local delicacies. Vast displays of freshly made sushi and sashimi, steamed buns and even well-stocked sections of prepared vegan dishes all made my mouth water and had me wishing I could stay another couple of days to squeeze in a few more meals.

Similar longings arose as I roamed the streets of Kobe’s 150-year-old Chinatown neighbourhood. Ditto while having a cup of filter coffee at Hokodo Coffee House and admiring all the foodie opportunities in its vicinity. Opened in 1874, Hokodo is not only the oldest coffee shop in Kobe, but was the first ever in Japan. Today you can still drink the same blend of Indian beans used when Hokodo was established more than 150 years ago.

Decidedly more downmarket than my snoop around Daimaru but equally yummy and a lot more fun was my dinner at a sobameshi restaurant in Sampei. Sobameshi is a Kobe-born version of okonomiyaki (savoury pancakes). The carb-iest of comfort foods, it sees rice and noodles added to the okonomiyaki stack for ultimate short-order satisfaction. The atmosphere at Sampei was convivial and perfect for a casual evening of drinking and snacking.

Sake: a polished product

One the eastern outskirts of Kobe is Nada district. Home to forty breweries, almost thirty percent of all sake in Japan is produced in this quiet Kobe suburb. While in town, I took the train out to Nada for an afternoon tour of one of its most historic and best-known breweries: Kobe Shushinkan Brewery.

Premium sake brand Fukuju is brewed at Shushinkan. Both the brand and the brewery are more than 250 years old. During my free tour (with tasting), I got a crash course in how water, rice, yeast and all-important koji are combined to make Japan’s favourite tipple. Never heard of koji? It’s steamed rice inoculated with mould that’s used in the fermentation process of sake but also miso, pickles and a range of other Japanese foods.

To my untrained eye, the brewery looked similar to any winery, distillery or beer brewery save for two things: the craftsmen-only koji making area and the rice polishing equipment. As a general rule, more premium sakes will contain rice that’s been polished for longer.

Fukuju is brewed with rice polished down to thirty-five percent of its original size for a cleaner, fresher drinking experience. Depending on the bottle, I tasted rich notes of pear, coconut and chocolate with each sip. I’m hardly the first to acknowledge Fujuku as a tasty quaff. Every year since 2008 that there has been a Japanese recipient of a Nobel Prize, Fukuju has been served at the prestigious banquet in Stockholm.

A visit to the countryside

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The countryside around Kobe is home to fertile farmland, where unusual vegetables such as tambas and black soybeans are harvested
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The town of Sasayama is a popular tourist attraction thanks to its shrines, temples and confectionery

Just beyond the mountain range pinning Kobe to the sea is Sasayama, a small town surrounded by farmland and forests with historic castles, shrines and temples sprinkled across its landscape. It’s popular with Japanese tourists for its sweets, and I had a taste of some at Suwaen, a confectioner and teahouse specialising in products made with local ingredients (including the Sencha green tea that they serve). Being there in autumn meant chestnuts were all the rage – and I was all for sampling biscuits and such flavoured with them.

Another popular tourist activity is heading into the hills for a soba (buckwheat noodles) lunch. I went for what’s regarded as serving the best at Isshimbou, where chef Tomokaze Ogawa has his own registered trademark for his ‘bleeding’ noodle cutting method to give his soba a ‘strong life and a pleasant texture’. I had my soba in a warm and moreish broth served with duck breast.

The Sasayama area is also known for growing tamba yams and black soybeans. I had a go at harvesting both with farmer Masanori Hirano. Tambas are similar to potatoes (folks in Sasayama called them ‘young potatoes) but are even starchier and taste a bit like apples. I must have come at the right time because harvesting them required little to no effort – simply the scrape of a hoe along the row. I didn’t get the chance to harvest any beans though (but got the impression it was a lot more labour intensive).

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Tambas are all but unheard of in the UK, but in Japan they're used in a variety of dishes
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Black soybeans, on the other hand, are often used in a sweet context, usually baked into brioche-style rolls

While I’m not averse to getting my hands dirty, I must confess I preferred tasting the tamba and black soybean dishes at local establishments. The beans were enjoyed baked into brioche-like buns at the town bakery, Konishi no Pan. If you like red bean paste desserts, you would love these more robust but still very sweet beans.

If beef is the preferred meat across the mountains back in Kobe, in Sasayama it’s wild boar hunted in the nearby mountains that’s the protein of choice. I had mine served botan nabe style at rustic eatery, Okuei. Essentially a wood-fried hotpot, botan nabe consists of different wild boar courses designed to maximise the heat of the fire and residue flavours of each prior course. I especially loved the last two rounds of my feast: a bowl of rice with tamba dumplings, fried eggs and broth from cooking the boar with vegetables and mushrooms, followed by one last slurp of the dregs sopped up with thick udon noodles.

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