When Manabu Matsumoto took his fiancé to dinner at the Kisuke cow-tongue restaurant in the Japanese city of Sendai recently, the Tokyo couple faced 28 menu choices.
Among them: mashed tongue, tongue sausage, tongue gravy, tongue salad, tongue stew, fried tongue, salted tongue, tofu slathered with tongue sauce, roasted tongue, smoked tongue, barbecued tongue, tongue mixed with fried egg and the traditional shabu shabu – thinly sliced tongue boiled in water.
In a country where many once regarded Americans as barbarians for eating meat from four-legged animals, Japanese consumers are gobbling up U.S. cow tongue as never before, signaling a rebound for the nation’s beef industry.
Only 11 years ago, Japan banned all American beef after the discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly known as mad-cow disease, in one cow in Washington state.
But after Japan last year loosened restrictions on the age of cattle it would accept, U.S. beef-tongue exports soared by 150 percent in 2013 over the previous year, according to the U.S. Meat Export Federation. They’re on pace to go even higher this year.
Now you can find cow tongue at tasting events at upscale retail stores. You can grab some at fast-food joints while waiting for a train in downtown Tokyo. One shop invented cow tongue ice cream. Cow tongue potato chips are set to hit the market next year.
But the hottest locale is Sendai, a city of 1 million people with more than 100 restaurants that serve gyutan, or beef tongue.
Matsumoto, a nursing assistant, and his soon-to-be wife, Akiko Hirama, a pharmacist, opted for the charcoal-grilled tongue, a regional favorite.
“It’s kind of like a crunchy texture,” said Matsumoto, 43, struggling to find the words to describe the appeal. He said he liked the texture and the deep strong flavor that made it taste nothing like steak: “It’s just delicious – that’s it.”
At the Rikyu beef-tongue processing plant in Iwanuma, which employs 120 workers, forklifts move big pallets loaded with cow tongue, most of it imported from Texas and Nebraska, the top two beef-producing states.
For sanitary reasons, employees take “air showers” to blow off any debris from their bodies. They wear rubber boots, hairnets, face masks and pocketless uniforms to ensure that nothing can drop onto the meat as it’s sliced and prepared for packaging. With local restaurants eager to protect recipes, no photographs are allowed in the seasoning room. Before the meat is boxed, it goes through metal detectors to look for any shiny objects the animals ate that may have remained in their tongues.
‘The American consumer doesn’t want it’
In beef parlance, tongue is part of the category of meat known as offal. It includes internal organs – such as hearts, kidneys, livers – that have little value for U.S. consumers.
“The American consumer doesn’t want it, so let’s export it to somebody that does,” said Pete Bonds, the president of the 17,000-member Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association in Fort Worth.
Bonds, 62, recalled eating boiled cow tongue as a youth, topped with mayonnaise and horseradish. But he said times had changed.
“I really don’t know a lady, a woman, anymore that can cook it. . . . I haven’t had a tongue sandwich in, hell, 30 years,” he said.
U.S. beef growers have found plenty of foreign buyers for their offal, including South Koreans, who want the animals’ large intestines.
“That’s a big deal right now – it’s probably worth $140 or $150 a head,” said Pat Knobbe, a cattle producer from West Point, Neb., who traveled to Japan last year to inspect how cow tongue is processed and consumed. “When we were there, it was worth $8 a pound, and here it’s maybe 50 cents a pound.”
If Americans don’t want the tongues, that’s fine with officials at the popular Kisuke restaurant chain, which goes through 1,500 tongues per day at its dozen establishments in Sendai, Tokyo, Osaka and Yokohama. All the tongues are imported from the United States.
“I don’t want you to eat them. . . . Only we Japanese want to eat,” said Hiroyasu Ono, Kisuke’s director of sales, speaking through an interpreter to an American reporter. An average entrée costs $12 at the chain, which has roughly 2,500 daily customers.
Kiyoshi Okawara, the chairman of the Sendai Beef Tongue Association and the owner of the Kisuke chain, said cow tongue restaurants had suffered when Japan banned U.S. beef after the mad-cow scare. He fought to end the prohibition.
Now competition is growing. Ono said Japanese restaurants must face restaurants in Mexico that use U.S. tongue in tacos. And he said one Japanese chain had opened a beef tongue restaurant in Los Angeles. With U.S. beef demanding top prices, he said, many restaurants are looking to New Zealand and Australia for cheaper meat.
“American beef is very high quality, so the price is also very high,” Ono said.
A market going ‘nowhere but up’
U.S. officials have spent a lot of time and money to try to convince Japanese citizens that beef is a good investment. It hasn’t been an easy task in a nation that historically has relied on fish for protein and rice for calories.
For over a thousand years before Japanese law changed in 1868, eating meat from four-legged animals was prohibited, mainly for religious reasons. Buddhists frowned on the practice because of their belief that people could be reincarnated as animals, while those practicing Shinto feared that meat would pollute the body, according to a 2009 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The first U.S. envoy to Japan, Townsend Harris, caused a stir in 1856 when he had a cow butchered in Japan to accommodate his fondness for steak dinners. The report said the incident caused great concern among the Japanese, with farmers hiding their cattle so they wouldn’t be taken for food by the “barbarians.” In 1931, Tokyo butchers erected a statute to mark the spot where the first cow was slaughtered; it’s known as “The Temple of the Butchered Cow.”
After bombing Japan in World War II, U.S. officials started giving beef to malnourished Japanese children as part of their school lunches. It prompted an epidemic of hives before the children adjusted, but U.S. officials say it paved the way for the American beef industry.
Japan, which didn’t begin importing beef in significant quantities until the late 1970s, now ranks as the top foreign market for U.S. cattle producers, both in volume and value, with shipments worth $1.4 billion last year, according to the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office.
Seeking more business, beef producers want to get rid of Japan’s tariffs on meat as part of the Obama administration’s push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade pact involving 12 nations that would rank as the largest in history if it passes Congress. Currently, most beef cuts carry a 38.5 percent duty, while beef tongue has a tariff of 12.8 percent.
U.S. cattle producers say eliminating the added costs would be a big boon for their industry, which is dominated by five states that account for more than half the nation’s cattle sales: Texas ranks first, followed by Nebraska, Kansas, California and Oklahoma.
“It’s going to be a battle, but if we can get them to lower the duty on beef, the people that are really going to benefit from it are the Japanese consumers,” Bonds said.
Critics of the proposed trade pact say the focus on beef tariffs is misplaced compared with the out-of-whack car trade between the nations, with Japan selling 130 of its vehicles in the United States for every American car sold in Japan.
“I mean, holy cow, while the Japanese are selling us cars and semiconductors and all kinds of other stuff, we’re fighting to sell them another pound of beef. It’s always seemed kind of weird to me,” said Clyde Prestowitz, a labor economist who worked as a trade negotiator for the Reagan administration. “It’s just not that big a deal. The big deal is in automobiles.”
More talks on the trade pact are scheduled in Washington this week, though no agreement is expected anytime soon.
With or without the beef tariffs, said Knobbe, the Nebraska cattle producer, the Japanese market is “going to go nowhere but up.” When he went to Japan last year, he said, a single steak sold for $35 to $40. When he returned, he hosted a group of Japanese cow-tongue buyers at his farm. He described them as picky buyers who grilled him on everything from animal weight to feed, showing particular fascination with his cornfields.
Knobbe said he was optimistic because it was younger Japanese who were driving the demand for cow tongue. He said that was the opposite of what had happened in the U.S., where cow tongue has all but disappeared from supermarkets because most younger people won’t touch it.
“Older people around here, they would pickle it and eat it,” Knobbe said. “But those people who knew how to make it and eat it, they’re dead.”