A primer on Korea’s best beefAsk Koreans about their country’s highest-quality beef, called hanu, and they’ll practically wax poetic. Some might even mention hanu in the same sentence as Kobe beef and USDA prime steaks. But for all its fame here, Korea’s choicest beef is virtually unheard of outside of the country.
In traditional agricultural society, the cow represented the ultimate symbol of one’s wealth and was considered a most rare and precious food. However, the recent mad cow disease scare in North America has dampened Koreans’ enthusiasm for any kind of beef, including hanu, even though cows here aren’t fed animal protein, which is the main way bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, is transmitted. BSE has been linked to variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease in humans, which is fatal.
Korea, which is the United States’ No. 2 beef export market in terms of value, recently banned American beef after a mad cow case was reported there last month, and it banned Canadian beef when a case was discovered in Alberta last May.
According to Lee Sang-soo, the deputy director of Livestock Management Division in the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, before the ban, U.S. beef made up about 40 percent of beef consumption in Korea, Australian and New Zealand beef 20 percent and Korean beef 35 percent.
Mr. Lee says that consumers don’t have to worry about mad cow disease in hanu, but that hasn’t stopped the decline in beef sales.
Lim Jong-gil, the meat buyer of Shinsegae Department Store, was concerned about the store’s 20 percent drop in sales of beef, both imported and domestic, even before Lunar New Year’s Day, when it is usually most in demand. The most shunned cut of beef, according to the store’s spokesman, was rib meat simply because it comes with bones. “Consumers think mad cow disease has to do with bones, not genetics, after reading ill-informed local news,” he says, shaking his head.
However, meat close to the spinal bone, such as porterhouse or T-bone steaks, could have a higher risk of coming into contact with spinal cord tissue, where BSE occurs, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C., consumer advocacy group.
The mad cow scare seems to have gone beyond a single chain of stores. “What really concerns us in the entire Korean beef industry is that every time there is a problem with imported beef, it’s the Korean beef that gets dealt a bad blow,” Mr. Lim says.
Organizing Korea’s beef industry
Mr. Lim regularly travels around the country in search of the best beef. For years, he says, Korean ranches lacked scientific data and system in breeding, feeding and raising their cattle. The typical Korean cows used to and still come from small privately owned farms or ranches.
“When I found some meat from a certain farmer or town that was particularly delicious, I used to ask what made the meat taste good. The answer was almost always, ‘I don’t know; I just did the usual thing,’ ” Mr. Lim says. “No one kept journals of raising their cattle, so no one knew why the meat tasted good or bad,” he says.
Koreans have a sentimental attachment to their domestic beef, called sonmat, a belief that homegrown food is always good for you. It’s a sentiment Mr. Lim dislikes, as it is hardly scientific. Instead, he’s a big supporter of the grading system, which came about as efforts to systemize the Korean beef industry began in the late 1980s.
There are less than a dozen large-scale systemized ranches in Korea, and most small-scale ranches receive support from the Korean government.
Today, Korean beef comes with a computerized serial number detailing the genealogy of each cow. With an advent of computer system and breeding technologies, the National Agricultural Cooperative Federation has dispersed genetically and genealogically correct calves and breakthrough knowledge, not only to maintain the Korea’s genuine species but also to improve the overall quality of hanu.
To establish a Korean cattle system and to improve the quality of meat, many meat experts have visited Japan on a regular basis and adopted more than 150-year-old Japanese methodologies that made Japan’s Matsusaka and Kobe beef world-famous.
Cho Se-hwan, who owns and operates Daesung Ranch, in Hwacheon in Gangwon province, and Kim Chong-min, the research associate of the Animal Resources Research Center in Konkuk University, are among the regular visitors to Japan and other international beef events.
Mr. Cho and Mr. Kim, both self-described “beef addicts,” believed that Korean beef had strong potential, yet needed a solid scientific system for mass market.
Having worked as a major meat packer and distributor for the past 18 years, Mr. Cho purchased a ranch in 1992 in the hopes of developing a concrete foundation for Korean beef. He contacted Mr. Kim, one of the few experts in Korea specializing in hanu, to collaborate on research on the ranch’s feeding system. Mr. Kim had conducted his post-doctorate studies in Japan’s Kyoto University, also renowned for its research into wagyu, Japanese beef that commands sky-high prices.
Mr. Cho was so impressed with the Japanese way of nurturing each cow in a carefully monitored room that he decided to limit the number of cows per caretaker. In his vast 150,000-pyeong (45,455 square meters) ranch in the isolated mountainous pocket, only 1,000 Korea’s indigenous cows are bred and raised.
Today, Daesung Ranch ranks as one of the top three ranches Korea, supplying exclusively to two Gangnam branches of Shinsegae Department Store.
Mr. Kim says the quality of Korean beef has been recognized by the international beef industry. Just like wagyu, Korea’s hanu is now an appellation known among beef industry professionals worldwide, he says.
He says that hanu tastes different from imported beef. “Asian beef contains a higher percentage of fatty acid, called oleic acid. American beef contains only 20 percent, while Korean beef has 40 percent, and wagyu almost 50 percent.”
All buyers, researchers and ranch owners seem to agree on one thing: The difference in the meat’s taste lies in the feed. Both Japanese and Korean cows are fed with grain as primary feed; Korean cows get rice straw in particular, along with corn, alfalfa or leftover grains from beer making.
The taste generated by grain-based feed is so preferred in Korea and Japan that American and Australian beef exporters, who rely heavily on Japanese and Korean beef consumption, began feeding grain to their cows to suit Asian palates.
Spread of mad cow scare
The mad cow disease found in U.S. and Canadian beef bothers both Mr. Cho and Mr. Kim because it hurts the Korean industry, even though no mad cow cases have been found in Korea.
The degenerative disease, which affects the central nervous system of cattle, was first diagnosed in the United Kingdom in 1986 and is linked to feed containing brain and spinal cord tissue from infected animals.
“American or European cows are fed with enhanced feed with nutrients or animal parts. It’s unnatural for cows to eat animal parts, so a genetic disorder took place,” Mr. Cho says. “In Japan too, there had been cases of mad cow disease a few years ago because the feeding system was far too advanced. To most Korean farmers, buying special feed for cows is almost unthinkable when rice straw is abundant anyway.”
He believes many diseases can occur in factory-like ranches where tens of thousands of cows are raised, and detecting a problem in such a scale of operation is nearly impossible. “It’s too costly and time-consuming for them to screen every single cow. It’s just not realistic,” he says.
So are Korean cows safe from disease? “Unless the nature of the disease is a bacteria or virus, like foot-and-mouth disease, things like mad cow disease, where misshapen proteins are the cause, are least likely,” Mr. Kim says.
Mr. Cho says in Korea, cows get extremely good care, as the family’s most prized asset. “In systemized ranches, it’s nearly impossible for a single sick cow to go unnoticed, especially now that we have a computerized tracking system,” says Mr. Cho pointing at newly born calves resting in a pristine compartment.
The mad cow scare has increased interest in organic beef in North America, but Koreans wanting to go organic will have to wait a while. Mr. Kim says that it’s been two years since hanu breeders stopped administering antibiotics, but the rice straw that cows eat are treated with pesticides. Unlike fruits and vegetables, which can be cultivated in a greenhouse, farming rice paddies in Korea’s climate makes it difficult to forgo using pesticides.
“In three years, when we develop pesticide-free feed, we’ll be able to see a real organic hanu,” Mr. Kim says.
Buying for consumers
Quality hanu goes up for auction daily at 11 a.m. in Garak-dong in eastern Seoul, where the city’s top 60 authorized distributors participate, an event that is electronically conducted and controlled by the Federation’s headquarters in Seoul. Some of the best hanu arrive as early as 6 a.m.
Along the metallic rail on the ceiling, massive carcasses slide up and down, each weighing about 380 kilograms (836 pounds). They are slaughtered the day before and put up for auction, and when sold, they are shipped out the next day. On normal weekdays, about 200 of these are sold, according to the Federation’s auction manager, Yim Nam-bin. Mr. Yim says the hanu auction system began in 1986.
Mr. Kim, the Konkuk professor, is working to develop a “health beef,” which, if successful, should contain less saturated fat, and is attending the auction to sample the meat.
He points to some carcasses’ chunky barrels stamped in bright green and red on the fatty exterior. Green means the meat comes from a milk cow, which means lower grade. The one with a red “A1+” indicates top-quality hanu.
Each carcass has a pie-like section cut out for auctioneers to inspect the meat quality. Both Mr. Yim and Mr. Kim point out one with an “A1+” stamp and a green paper tag. It’s from a reputable ranch.
The cut-out section exposes the crimson red meat, gorgeously marbled with off-white solid fat. Examining the raw meat, Mr. Kim looks as if he’s about to drool.
“Isn’t this beautiful? You see the fine white line delicately dispersing like snowflakes? This is the cream of the crop in hanu,” he says.
Mr. Yim explains that the section is sirloin located on the rib number 12 and 13, to be exact, but both hanu experts insist that the number 5 and 6 have a better marble. “When Koreans adopted the Japanese system, they just wanted to be different from Japanese,” Mr. Kim says with a shrug.
So where do non-bidders find hanu? Unfortunately, going to local butchers that claim to stock “hanu only” may not guarantee that you’re actually getting the real thing.
Looking at the crowded meat market right next to the city’s official slaughter and auction house, the manager shakes his head. “Sorry, but even these sellers close to us sell meat from dubious sources ― except for one whom I know is very honest.”
Beef lovers can’t count on restaurants that advertise hanu, either. “God knows what’s in your dish,” Mr. Lim of Shinsegae says with a sigh. “Virtually every restaurant owner tells you he serves hanu only, but restaurants must be selling import beef together. Hanu takes up less than 30 percent of Korea’s entire beef consumption. Supply and demand of hanu simply don’t match.”
Mr. Yim, the auction manager, strongly suggests buying hanu at authorized distributors only, such as the government-run Nonghyeop (the National Agricultural Cooperative Federation) chains or Korea’s top department stores, such as Shinsegae, Hyundai and Lotte.
“Buying the meat there might cost you more, but you get real hanu. These companies cannot and will not cheat because one bad incident will be just too damaging,” he says. “I wouldn’t even suggest eating beef at meat restaurants at such critical times like now. Buy the real stuff at legitimate stores and cook at home.”
At home: The verdict
The next day, finding and ordering the real stuff at Gangnam Shinsegae wasn’t too hard, now that all is thoroughly investigated.
The number 5 and 6 sirloin steaks were brought straight from Daesung Ranch the day before. Stored at exactly 1 degree centigrade, the meat was not frozen but not necessarily thawed either. It costs 78,000 won ($65.65) for one kilogram, nearly double the prices of Australian beef, three times the price of average-grade hanu.
Hanu specialists suggest no fancy marinade for the real stuff. The simplest preparation for the best beef in Korea is pan-frying the meat rare and dipping the slice with sea salt and a dash of freshly ground black pepper.
Each slab, about a half centimeter thick, was placed on the hot pan sizzling with smoke. Almost upon contact, the picturesque snowflake marbles begin to melt, creating faint creases in the fast-browning surface of the lean meat.
At first bite, it is incredibly tender, yet delightfully toothsome. Then with each chew, it bursts into a juicy pleasure that turns into a sweet sensation, which seems to linger even after it has been swallowed.
The wholesome taste of the red meat make existing steak sauces and spices obsolete. The faintest fragrance of butter, olive oil or herbs will only interfere with the taste.
So let those scared off by mad cow disease avoid hanu... that just leaves more for the rest of us who know what Korean beef is truly all about.
Buying guide to Korean beef
According to the Livestock Management Division of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, hanu in the market comes in three grades: 1, 2 or 3, or Teuksang, Sang or Jung. Here are the Korean names and their English equivalent for the parts of the cow.
1. Meori Chuck
2. Moksim Neck
3. Deungsim Loin
4. Chaekkeut Strip Loin
5. Udun Round
6. Ansim Tenderloin
7. Apdari Blade/Clod
8. Galbi Ribs
9. Yangji Brisket & Flank
10. Seoldo Butt & Rump
11. Satae Fore Shank/Shin
12. Satae Behind Shank/Shin
13. Ujok Foot
14. Kkori Tail
by Ines Cho