SENDAI, Japan — When Manabu Matsumoto took his fiancee 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.
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.”
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. 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.
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.