The deep-fried, potato, cheese and meat creations – croquettes – are a quintessential fast food delight across the world. Unless you’re in the land of the rising sun. We’re exploring a Japanese butcher shop that has snack-enthusiasts waiting for up to three decades for a bite of their Kobe beef delicacy.
Asahiya – a family-run butcher shop in Takasago City in western Japan’s Hyogo Prefecture – specialises in meat products, including all things Kobe beef. This Wagyu (cattle breed) beef type is one of the most coveted across the globe and Shigeru Nitta – the owner – ensures customers get the best bang for their buck with each cut. However, what truly propelled his business to internet stardom were his beef and potato dumplings that went from an unprofitable business idea to one of the most popular Japanese snacks. In fact, since their introduction in 2000, diners need to queue up for up to 30 years for a taste of these deep-fried Kobe beef goodies. Here’s looking at what makes them worth the wait.
Kobe beef is scored on marbling and texture
Modern-day Wagyu cattle are the product of genetic-crossing of native Japanese cattle with imported breeds, as a part of the government’s effort to introduce more Western food habits and culture. Post this, the ‘improved cattle,’ were recognised – Japanese black, brown, polled, and shorthorn. Soon enough, the flavour and nutritional benefits of their meat had the country declare it a natural treasure, banning all exports. In particular, Kobe beef – from black cattle – hails from the farmland of Hyogo Prefecture in Kobe – Japan’s sixth largest city.
Reportedly around the late 1900s, foreigners within and outside of the country took to the meat, hailing it for its tender flavour and well-marbled texture. The Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Promotion Association was then set up to score each cut on these factors. Even today, only the best of the lot is certified. Shigeru Nitta ensures that he bids only on meat from reliable farmers in the Kobe Western Market auction. This process involves checking for feed and ranch as well as the age and medical history of the cattle. Post this, the meat is tasted and only the best, most delicious ones are sold. Any side dishes are also manufactured in-house.
Asahiya makes only about 200 croquettes per day
Since 1926, as per a report by CNN, Asahiya has sold meat products – including Kobe beef. “We started selling our products through online shopping in 1999,” Nitta, who’s the third-generation owner, explained. “At that time, we offered Extreme Croquettes as a trial,” he added. These were priced at Rs 157 per piece, all while the beef itself cost about 232 per piece.
The aim was to have customers enjoy the affordable fried Japanese snack and convince them to invest in the Kobe beef after the first bite. “We sell the beef raised by the people we know. Our shop only sells meat that was produced in Hyogo Prefecture, whether it’s Kobe beef, Kobe pork or Tajima chicken. This has been the style of the shop since before I became the owner,” Nitta stated as per Firstpost.
In the beginning, only about 200 croquettes were made in the in-house kitchen every week. This was done to limit financial loss. These were made fresh, with no preservatives and three-year-old female A5-ranked Kobe beef. The dark-yellow potatoes, meanwhile, were sourced from a local ranch. Nitta encouraged the farmers to use cow manure to grow the potatoes organically – the stems of which were fed to the cows. To maximise the umami flavours, potatoes are ripened in a special refrigerator for two months to draw out their sweetness. Then, these ingredients are combined with onions before they’re fried until crispy.
These delicious snacks found many takers locally. And when a report about the same came out in the early 2000s, their popularity shot through the roof. “We stopped selling them in 2016 because the waiting time became over 14 years. We were thinking of stopping orders, but we got many calls requesting to keep offering them,” the report by CNN quoted Nitta saying.
Orders resumed in 2017, but at higher prices, with consumption tax. However, once the export of Kobe beef began, prices of the meat doubled, continuing to put the business in a deficit. That aside, production has been amped up to 200 croquettes a day. “In reality, the Extreme Croquettes got way more popular than other products,” Nitta jokingly notes.
A box of five costs INR 1,570
As the demand grew, so did the wait time for a bite. At the moment, customers receiving the croquettes placed an order about 10 years ago. The shop regularly sends out a newsletter to update customers on the estimated delivery date. A week prior to this, the delivery is confirmed and any changes in addresses are made. If email addresses have changed, the shop calls them directly. About half of those who try these Japanese snacks end up ordering the Kobe beef. This, along with the zeal to let more people try this delicacy, pushes the owner. “I’m grateful. By becoming famous, I think I can help the whole industry, not just my shop, by making people who have not been interested in Kobe beef get interested. I want to have as many people as possible eat Kobe beef — not just from my shop,” he says.
Asahiya is based in Takasago City and Kobe City. The croquettes are only shipped domestically. Travellers can visit the latter branch to grab ready-to-eat takeaway snacks called ‘Tor Road’ and ‘Kitanozaka’ croquettes instead. Head here to place an order instead.
All images: Courtesy Asahiya/Shutterstock
This story first appeared on Lifestyle Asia India