You’ve probably heard of wagyu, Kobe and Black Angus – all types of premium beef that demand big price tags for just a few bites. But when’s the last time you sat down in front of a slab of Hanwoo?
Raised free-range in the South Korean countryside, Hanwoo cattle are known for their high marbling, beefy flavor and slightly sweet taste – a result of an organic mixed grain and grass diet.
In South Korea, locally bred Hanwoo is the meat of choice – and it’s priced accordingly. It’s more expensive than wagyu of comparable quality, but not as expensive as Kobe (bred in Japan’s Hyogo prefecture), and it’s double the price of a comparable cut of US or Australian beef.
“Hanwoo beef is highly coveted,” says celebrity chef Judy Joo, the host of Food Network’s “Korean Food Made Simple” and owner of Jinjuu restaurant in London. “It is prized and priced as such, since demand is high and supply is limited. South Korea is a small country with limited land for cows to roam, so space is limited to breed and grow this valuable stock.”
Korea’s pride and joy
Hanwoo cattle — Photo courtesy of iStock / VDCM image
Sporting a golden brown coat to mirror its golden price tag, Hanwoo is among the oldest indigenous cattle breeds in the world. These cows have roamed around South Korea for more than two millennia and were primarily used for rice farming until the 1960s, when South Koreans began to consume more red meat.
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Since then, Hanwoo has become the quintessential way to spoil your partner on a date night or your family during the holiday.
“People in South Korea love to eat Hanwoo when they go out to dinner,” says Jaeyoung Lee, the executive chef at Four Seasons Hotel Seoul. “Many people prefer Hanwoo because Kobe is considered too greasy.”
A rare breed
Hanwoo might be popular on its home turf, but it doesn’t have international name recognition like wagyu or Kobe. There are a few reasons we don’t see more of it.
Beginning in 2000, a series of cases of foot and mouth disease (FMD) were reported in South Korea, barring it from exportation to other countries; only FMD-free nations can export raw meat, according to the World Organization for Animal Health [OIE].
Even after the ban was lifted in 2014, exports didn’t pick up much. Depleted herds, combined with high demand from South Koreans, caused a shortage of Hanwoo beef at home. Only a few countries, including Hong Kong and China, have imported Hanwoo beef so far.
Chef Sandy Keung, who helms surf ‘n’ turf restaurant TABLE in Hong Kong, was among the first restaurants in Hong Kong to include Hanwoo on her menu. As part of her Taste Map steak experience, diners sampled French beef carpaccio, Japanese wagyu, Hong Kong beef, USDA Prime sirloin and Hanwoo ribeye side-by-side.
A distinct taste
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Hanwoo — Photo courtesy of Table
On looks alone, it’s very hard to distinguish a premium wagyu from Hanwoo because they’re both highly marbled meats. But by taste? Chefs Keung, Lee, and Joo agree that there’s a distinct difference. Generally speaking, Lee says it comes down to its fat-to-protein ratio, which affects the flavor and tenderness of the steak.
Though it varies depending on the cut, a wagyu ribeye has the most marbling (with roughly 70% fat and 30% protein), followed by Hanwoo ribeye which has about 40% to 50% fat. Meanwhile, a U.S. cut of a similar quality has closer to 20% to 30% fat.
“Hanwoo has a very attractive flavor; it’s not as beefy and lean as American steaks tend to be, nor as fatty as wagyu,” says Keung. “When people describe that ‘beef’ flavor, that’s what you think of when eating a lean meat. Hanwoo has that great beef flavor, but there are unique flavors in an animal’s fat too. So you need both fat and protein to achieve a steak that’s as tender and beefy as Hanwoo.”
The royal treatment
According to the chefs, Hanwoo has all the beefy flavor of a USDA Prime without being overpowered by the oily marbling associated with Kobe and wagyu. The secret to its perfect balance lies in how the animals are raised and fed.
Similar to highly pampered wagyu and Kobe cattle, some Hanwoo herds are known to guzzle beer, enjoy massages, roam freely and sometimes even listen to classical music to decrease stress levels. Both Hanwoo and Wagyu eat grains, but the Hanwoo diet tends toward corn, while wagyu usually relies on oats.
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“Every farmer has their own special mix – some using beer, some using fermented pine needles, barley, rice and mixed whole grains,” says Joo. “Alcohol-fermented feed of some kind is popular as it is full of probiotics and naturally keeps the cattle healthy. The alcohol also keeps the meat tender and fatty.”
Try it someday in South Korea
Hanwoo ribeye — Photo courtesy of Table
It might seem counterintuitive, but in South Korea, expensive Hanwoo is generally eaten as part of a pretty casual Korean barbecue experience, with the short rib being the top cut.
In Seoul, travelers can get a taste of the famous meat at spots like Daedo Sikdang (431-2 Hongik-dong, Seongdong-gu), a stalwart restaurant with more than 50 years in the business, and Byeokje Galbi (467-29 Dogok-dong, Gangnam-gu), which promises diverse cuts and an array of side dishes.
Lee also recommends 청평숯불갈비 (184-32 Nonhyeon 1-dong), a typical Korean barbecue restaurant in the Gangnam neighborhood which gets its Hanwoo straight from the farm.
Of course, if you really want the scenery to go with the price tag, you can head to the Four Seasons Seoul, whose restaurant Maru serves up Hanwoo all sorts of different ways.
Whether you’re dining in a local barbecue joint or in a five-star hotel, Keung offers some simple life advice: “If you see a premium Hanwoo on a menu, order it.”