Thursday, January 28, 2016

Moo the Hanwoo.

A plate of Hanwoo beef served up at a restaurant called Cheonja Maru in Changwon.
We might just have to figure out how to get to this place!
 (Photo from Changwon city official blog in Korea.)
Beef. I am a beef eater and if the ratio of beef versus pork or chicken sold in Korean supermarket is any indication, Koreans love beef too!

Hanwoo (also Han-u, Hanu) are cattle indigenous to Korea.  They are believed to originate from taurine (European heritage) cattle, sharing the same origins as Japanese Wagyu.  But natural cross breeding with zebu cattle that migrated to the Korean peninsula through North China has created a uniquely Korean breed of cattle.  Even though Korean cattle are generally known as Hanwoo, the name applies to the  most common type which has a brown colored coat. 

Korean cattle have been raised in the Korean Peninsula since as far back as 2,000 BC.  They were raised primarily for draft and occasionally for sacrificial rites.  It has only been since 1979 that Hanwoo has been bred as beef cattle.  Almost all of the beef cattle population in South Korea is Hanwoo and breeding it requires attention to pedigree. The Korea Animal Improvement Association is the only organization approved by the state to register and evaluate pure-bred Hanwoo cattle.

Up until the late 1970's, consumption of beef was low in Korea primarily due to the low number of cattle in Korea and also religious and practical issues.  Over the decades since then, Korean beef has had its ups and downs from a consumption perspective - down when there were concerns over mad cow disease, up when there were concerns over eating seafood following the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi.  Today, beef consumption far exceeds the ability of Korean cattle farmers to supply it - there are fewer heads of cattle as ranchers are still rebuilding their herds following the mad cow period and there is limited land to for cattle to graze.  To satisfy demand, Korea is a large importer of meat from Australia, US, New Zealand, Mexico and Canada.

Hanwoo is to Korea what Wagyu is to the Japanese.  Koreans consider Hanwoo beef to be a cultural icon and one of the top-quality beefs of the world - it is used in traditional foods, popular holiday dishes, or as a special-day gift. 

Hanwoo is not cheap meat.  Top grade Hanwoo can cost upwards of $65 per kilo!  But despite its high price, many Koreans prefer Han-u to cheaper beef imported from Australia and the US as the former is regarded as fresher and of better quality.  For one thing, Hanwoo is NEVER frozen.

But for all its fame here, Korea's choicest beef is virtually unheard of outside of the country.  Korean connoisseurs say that Hanwoo tastes different from imported beef because it contains a much higher percentage of a fatty acid called oleic acid. American beef contains only 20 percent, while Korean beef has 40 percent, and Japanese Wagyu beef almost 50 percent.  Hanwoo also contains a higher percentage of linoleic acid which is polyunsaturated omega-6 fatty acid.  I could tell you it's all about the fat. The more fat, the better the taste.  That's the case with pork and why should it not be the same with beef.  You can definitely see the higher fat content when you simply look at Hanwoo. 

Connoisseurs also agree on another point - that the difference in the taste of Hanwoo versus imported beef taste lies in the feed.  Korean cows are grain fed - primarily rice straw, 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 America and Australian beef exporters, who rely heavily on Japanese and Korean beef consumption, began feeding grain to their cows to suit Asian palates.

The mad cow scare increased interest in organic beef in North America, but Koreans wanting to go organic will have to wait a while. While Hanwoo breeders have stopped administering antibiotics, the rice straw that cows eat are treated with pesticides. Farming rice paddies in Korea's climate makes it difficult to forgo using pesticides so it will be sometime before organic Hanwoo will sold.

American beef is graded based on a composite evaluation of factors that affect the palatability of the meat in terms of tenderness, juiciness and flavor. These factors include carcass maturity, firmness, texture, and color of lean, and the amount and distribution of marbling within the lean.  Consumers typically three grades of meat - Select being the lowest quality, Choice is the middle grade and Prime is the highest grade.  In actuality, there is also a fourth grade - Standard.

Marbling (intramuscular fat) is the intermingling or dispersion of fat within the lean of the meat. In the US, graders evaluate the amount and distribution of marbling in the ribeye muscle between the 12th and 13th ribs. The degree of marbling is the primary determination of quality grade.

Similar to the Japanese, the Koreans also apply a Beef Marbling Standard (BMS) to establish grade.  Typically, they also evaluate the ribeye muscle. located between the 12th and 13th ribs. However, Hanwoo experts insist at grading based on section between the 5th and 6th ribs, maintaining that that section has better marbling.  For many, a rib steak from between the 5th and 6th ribs is the ultimate piece of Hanwoo meat and therefore, that cut commands the highest price.  Because of the higher fat content of Hanwoo beef versus American beef, there are more rungs to the Hanwoo grading scale.
Korean Beef Grading System as established by the Korean Institute for Animal Products Quality Evaluation (KAPE)
No. 1 is the lowest grade with is grade 3.  This corresponds to U.S. Select grade.
No. 2 and 3 are grade 2 which is the equivalent of U.S. Choice grade.
No. 4 and 5 are grade 1 which matches U.S. Prime grade.
No. 6 and 7 are grade 1+. There is no equivalent U.S. grade.
No. 8 and 9 are grade 1++. There is no equivalent U.S. grade.

Hanwoo beef is considered a delicacy and therefore, is treated with care when being prepared.  Koreans will not marinade the meat.  Instead, it is simply pan fried rare and each with a bit of sea sal and a dash of freshly ground pepper.  If you ask me, this would be the best way to appreciate the meat for the meat itself - nothing else to get in the way of its delicate flavor and supposedly toothsome texture. 
Hanwoo galbi.
(Photo by Alan Chan.  Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I have no doubt that George and I will have our fair share of eating beef while we're in Korea.  I don't know that I have a strong desire to try hanwoo mainly because I'm not a real meat connoisseur.  Perhaps, I can tell the difference simply because the meat might be more *melt in the mouth* tender but other than that I wouldn't appreciate the subtle differences in taste between grain fed Hanwoo and grain fed American beef.  On the other hand, because the supply of Hanwoo is so limited that there is not enough meat to export, the only place to taste this meat is in Korea so maybe we bite the bullet, just for that reason. I do think it's ironic that any beef we do eat might likely be grain fed US beef, like what I can get at home.  Thankfully though, US beef cooked Korean style will be a different dining experience and though Korean restaurants are plentiful in the US, I am looking forward to tasting bulgogi (aka Korean barbecue) and galbi (aka Korean barbecued ribs) in the homeland!