Korean beef, not Japan's wagyu, "might be the best meat on earth," according to an article in USA Today last week that seems to reflect fresh global recognition.
"Wagyu from Japan is often held up as the best beef in the world," says an article by Bloomberg's published in March last year. But the headline asked "Is Wagyu the World's Most Overrated Steak?"
Wagyu is loved for its tenderness, but some complain that it is too soft and buttery and does not have enough flavor. On the other hand Korean beef, or hanwoo, is said to have great flavor as well as texture to the palate. They are both highly marbled but are distinctively different in taste.
The key to the difference in taste is the fat-to-protein ratio. Wagyu ribeye is about 70 percent fat and 30 percent protein, whereas hanwoo ribeye has 40 to 50 percent fat. It strikes a fine balance between the strengths of wagyu and less fatty and tougher American or Australian beef.
"Hanwoo has a very attractive flavor; it's not as beefy and lean as American steaks tend to be, nor as fatty as wagyu," Hong Kong chef Sandy Keung was quoted as saying. This finely balanced flavor, complemented by slight sweetness, is achieved by what the cows eat -- organic mixed grain and grass.
"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."
Then why has it not achieved as much international success? Partly because the livestock was "primarily used for rice farming" and carrying burdens. However, hanwoo began to be appreciated and command high prices when red meat consumption became widespread from the 1960s.
The high price is due to limited supply. There is only limited space where hanwoo stock can be bred in Korea, and an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the 2000s hindered exports.
"Even after the ban was lifted in 2014, exports didn't pick up much. Depleted herds, combined with high demand from [Koreans], caused a shortage of hanwoo beef at home," reported USA Today.
Hanwoo is similar to wagyu cattle, which drink beer, enjoy massages, are free range, and listen to classical music, in that Korean farms make special efforts of their own.
Celebrity chef Judy Joo was quoted as saying, "Every farmer has their own special mix -- some using beer, some using fermented pine needles, barley, rice and mixed whole grains. 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."