Hong Kong gets early taste of Hanwoo, Korean beef that rivals Kobe

Similar to Japanese wagyu, but with a beefier taste, Hanwoo is rarely exported due to demand at home, but you can try it in a few select restaurants in Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 July, 2016, 5:31am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 July, 2016, 5:31am

Since late last year, premium Korean beef, called Hanwoo, has been making its way onto menus in some Hong Kong restaurants, as the city is one of the first places allowed to import it. Hanwoo refers to cattle indigenous to Korea which are raised only in the country, unlike wagyu (Japanese beef), which is bred in countries outside Japan, including Australia and the United States.

One of its biggest fans is Korean-American chef Judy Joo, whose restaurant Jinjuu in Lan Kwai Fong was one of the first in Hong Kong to serve it.

“It’s similar to Kobe beef and wagyu, and there are different types of Hanwoo, depending on which farm you go to,” she says. “It’s basically coveted for its high marbling. Wagyu and Hanwoo of the same grade look similar. But Hanwoo has a rich texture and is deeply marbled so it has a sweeter taste.”

She has visited farms that raise Hanwoo cattle, and reports the animals are “raised like humans”. “Some farmers give them beer,” Joo adds.

Restaurant review: Jinjuu serves modern Korean in the heart of Lan Kwai Fong

Each farmer has his own secret recipe for the cattle’s feed mixture, which for the most part is made up of barley and mixed grains. Joo says many farmers include fermented pine needles in the feed.

“It’s a healthy way for the cattle to get probiotics so they don’t need hormones,” she explains. “It’s a more organic way to raise them, and they don’t need to inject as much medicine so they are more healthy.”

In addition to the organic approach to feeding Hanwoo cattle, Joo says they are free-range, grazing on grass, though there isn’t much land for pasture, as 70 per cent of Korea’s geography is mountainous. Joo says the central and southern parts of Korea are where cattle farms are located, with each one typically raising about 40 cattle at a time.

She says the best cuts of Hanwoo beef are rib-eye, fillet and sirloin, and adds it can be more expensive than wagyu. Her restaurant recently introduced steak boards featuring Hanwoo and USDA beef that diners can cook on sizzling hot stones. The 200-gram marinated sirloin bulgogi is HK$680 and is grade 9, the highest quality available.

But when it comes to taste, the chef-owner says it’s about personal preference. “Hanwoo beef is very popular in Korea and people can’t get enough of it. You just need to try it.”

Elite Fresh Food Company is the first firm in Hong Kong to import Hanwoo beef. Associate director Andrew Lee Chi-ho says the company was in talks with officials in Korea for more than two years before it was allowed to bring the first shipment into Hong Kong last December.

“It’s a very special breed because it takes a long time to get consistent cattle,” he explains. “It takes five to 10 generations, 15 to 30 years, to get consistent marbling, flavour and good structure.”

Lee says until recently Korean beef was rarely exported because there is so much demand for it domestically. As a result, Hong Kong importers like himself have to pay a premium to buy Hanwoo beef.

We can only get the parts that don’t sell well in Korea ... But this works out for the Hong Kong market because those cuts are popular here
Andrew Lee

“We can only get the parts that don’t sell well in Korea [where they prefer short ribs], like rib-eye and sirloin. But this works out for the Hong Kong market because those cuts are popular here.”

He says the cost of Hanwoo beef is about the same as Japanese-raised wagyu, selling at about HK$240 per 100 grams retail. When it comes to taste, Lee also seems partial to Korean beef.

“They are two different products. Wagyu has highly intense marbling that is very fatty and melts in the mouth, but is oily and lacks a strong beef flavour. Hanwoo is very tender, has good marbling and has more beef flavour. It also has a wider application for other cuisines because of this,” Lee explains.

For example, steaks are usually grilled to medium rare or medium for optimum taste. But Lee claims Hanwoo beef can even be cooked well done and it still tastes good. “Wagyu beef has a ratio of 70 per cent fat and 30 per cent meat, whereas with Hanwoo it’s about 50-50 or 60-40. American beef is more lean, with a maximum of 15 to 20 per cent fat.”

Lee reports Elite Fresh Food’s first shipment of Hanwoo beef to Hong Kong totalled 700kg. Now it ships twice a month, bringing in 1.5 tonnes to 1.7 tonnes a month. It’s not a lot when you compare it to the seven to nine tonnes of wagyu the company imports each month.

The Steak House Winebar + Grill at the InterContinental Hong Kong recently featured Hanwoo beef on its menu. Restaurant manager Franco Leung Wai-keung agrees with Lee’s assessment of Korean beef, saying that when the rib-eye or striploin is chargrilled, the fat drips off and tastes less oily than wagyu.

“It’s in between wagyu [grade] A5 and US beef, but they don’t have as strong a beef taste as Hanwoo,” he says.

Leung says overall feedback during a recent two-month promotion was mostly positive. He says the restaurant is already planning to put the premium Korean beef back on the menu soon.

“They taste the quality,” he reports, adding Hanwoo is best complemented with more acidic Italian or Spanish wines.

At the nearby Oyster & Wine Bar at the Sheraton Hong Kong Hotel & Towers, chef de cuisine Oscar Chow Kwok-ho says he first tried Hanwoo on a trip to Korea two years ago during a cooking competition.

Chow says locals took him to a store that served the premium beef and he was deeply impressed by the taste and texture. He finally managed to get Hanwoo on the menu in February, and diners can have a starter of Hanwoo beef carpaccio, then a main course of either chargrilled sirloin or rib-eye.

He reports that his guests enjoyed the Korean beef, as it is rare in the Hong Kong market. He says the price in the restaurant is reasonable when compared to other premium beef (HK$1,100 for Hanwoo versus HK$1,300 for wagyu).

Six places in Hong Kong to get your hands on Hanwoo beef

Oyster & Wine Bar

18/F, Sheraton Hong Kong Hotel & Towers, 20 Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, tel: 2369 1111 ext 3145

Mr Steak Café

Shop 702, 7/F, New Town Plaza Phase 1, 18 Sha Tin Centre Street, Sha Tin, tel: 2691 6263

Shop G03A, Maritime Square, 33 Tsing King Road, Tsing Yi, tel: 2449 9945

Myung Ga

Shop 2702, 27/F, iSquare, 63 Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, tel: 2369 1177

Shop 1, 13/F, World Trade Centre, 280 Gloucester Road, Causeway Bay, tel: 2882 5056

Jinjuu

UG/F, California Tower, 32 D’Aguilar Street, Lan Kwai Fong, tel: 3755 4868

Oyster & Wine Bar

18/F, Sheraton Hong Kong Hotel & Towers, 20 Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, tel: 2369 1111 ext 3145

Mr Steak Café

Shop 702, 7/F, New Town Plaza Phase 1, 18 Sha Tin Centre Street, Sha Tin, tel: 2691 6263.

Shop G03A, Maritime Square, 33 Tsing King Road, Tsing Yi, tel: 2449 9945.

Myung Ga

Shop 2702, 27/F, iSquare, 63 Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, el: 2369 1177.

Shop 1, 13/F, World Trade Centre, 280 Gloucester Road, Causeway Bay, tel: 2882 5056.

Jinjuu

UG/F, California Tower, 32 D’Aguilar Street, Lan Kwai Fong, tel: 3755 4868.