Skip to main content

What To Know About Hanwoo, The Wagyu Beef of Korea

In South Korea, there’s a native breed of cattle that connoisseurs say rivals the best Japanese Wagyu beef. Known as Hanwoo, this beef is one of the most prized items in Korean cuisine and enjoyed either for celebratory dinners or given as luxurious gifts during Lunar New Year or Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving).

Image used with permission by copyright holder

What is Hanwoo Beef?

Although often described as the Wagyu of Korea, the reality is that the Hanwoo breed predates all Japanese cattle. Cows first arrived in Japan from the Asian mainland over 2,000 years ago, with many of these first generation cattle hailing from the Korean peninsula. Between 1868 and 1910, there was also an infusion of Korean genetics to cattle raised in the Japanese prefectures of Kumamoto and Kochi. In fact, Red Wagyu/Akasuhi cattle bears a strong physical resemblance to the Hanwoo breed.

Historically, beef consumption was rare in Korea since cows were primarily used as farm animals. The Hanwoo breed was originally used exclusively as a draught animal and not for meat. Hanwoo is one of the four native breeds of Korean cattle. The other three breeds are: Jeju Heugu (Jeju black cattle), Chikso (Korean brindle cattle), and Heugu (Korean black cattle).

Currently, the best Hanwoo cattle is raised in Hoengseong in Gangwon-do Province of Korea. Here, local farmers sometimes employ creative methods to ensure the best quality beef. Some farmers mix their feed with pine leaf enzyme (believed to heighten meat quality). Others keep a radio on in the cattle pens. The constant ambient noise of a human voice is believed to ease the cattle’s exposure to people, ensuring the Hanwoo will stay calm and not tense their muscles during transportation or butchering. Each Hanwoo cow also has its own electronic ID, containing information of the animal’s shots and treatment history.

South Korea has its own meat grading system. Based on a combination of marbling and color, beef is judged on the scale of 1++, 1+, 1, 2 or 3 (1++ is the highest). Another grade is the measure of “percentage of meat available for use.” This grade is separated into A, B or C. In Hanwoo terms, 1+++ is the Korean equivalent of A5 Wagyu.

Preparing Hanwoo Beef

The flavor of Hanwoo can best be described as a combination of Wagyu and American Angus. Unlike Wagyu, which has a predominance of marbling, Hanwoo has comparatively less fat but an increase in beefy flavor. For many beef lovers, Hanwoo is the best of both worlds.

Hanwoo beef can be prepared either Korean or Western style. Because of its combination of marbling and flavor, some Hanwoo cuts are best used for Korean barbecue. This comes down to a question of butchering, which can be quite different depending on cultures. In America, beef is usually butchered into 22 distinct cuts. But in Korea, beef can be butchered into up to 120 cuts. Two examples are top blade/flat iron (buchaesal) and plate/skirt (upjinsal), which are very popular cuts in Korea for barbecue. Both cuts reside near the organs and will possess an intensely beefy flavor.

Hanwoo can also be served butchered into steak cuts and cooked all manner of ways. Popular steak cuts like ribeye or strip steak on the Hanwoo cattle will feature noticeably more marbling than prime American beef. This changes the flavor profile of familiar cuts. For example, steak lovers will often deride the tenderloin as bland. Because Hanwoo has so much natural beef flavor, Hanwoo tenderloin will have a heightened beefiness usually only found in more flavorful cuts.

The Future of Hanwoo

Hanwoo meat counter at Born and Bred Seoul, Korea. bornandbredkorea/Instagram

Currently, Hanwoo beef is unavailable in America and only exported in limited qualities abroad. It is also relatively unknown compared to the more famous Wagyu. This is changing as some Hanwoo promotors in Korea have started to evangelize their native Korean beef to a wider audience.

One example is Jung Sang-won, the owner of Born and Bred, a unique Hanwoo restaurant in Seoul. The son of a beef seller at Majang-dong, a famous meat market and restaurant area in Seoul, Jung has created a multi-story temple to Hanwoo beef. The first floor of Born and Bred is a butcher counter, displaying various cuts of high-end Hanwoo. On the second floor is the main restaurant but it’s the basement that features the restaurant’s crown jewel — an elegant dining room featuring a beef tasting course modeled after the finest sushi omakase in Japan. Here, various Hanwoo cuts are cooked both Korean and Western style in front of diners.

Hanwoo is expensive, relatively unknown, and almost impossible to find outside Korea. But this is slowly changing. Recently, Hanwoo beef has been exported to Hong Kong. It has also appeared in international pop culture hits, demonstrated by the beef’s appearance in the 2020 Oscar Best Picture winner Parasite.

Editors' Recommendations

Hunter Lu
Hunter Lu is a New York-based food and features writer, NYU graduate, and Iraq veteran. His fiction has appeared in The Line…
Hamburger expert George Motz walks us through how to cook the perfect hamburger
These tips and tricks will make you a master of the backyard barbecue.

How to cook the perfect hamburger, while seemingly simple, actually requires a lot of culinary techniques. Should you grill or use a cast iron pan? What's the ideal lean-to-fat ratio for burger patties? The best buns? Condiments?

Here to help is George Motz, a hamburger expert with credentials ranging from Hamburger America, cookbook
Great American Burger Book
 and YouTube series, Burger Scholar Sessions. While there are great versions of turkey or vegetarian burgers, this article will focus exclusively on beef.
The meat

Read more
The FDA is changing its stance on salt substitutes — here’s what a dietitian says you should know
How to reduce your salt intake
Salt with a wooden spoon

If there's one "secret" ingredient that makes anything taste more delicious, it's salt, of course. Well, salt or butter. Usually both. No dish is complete without this miraculous little mineral. After all, where would our French fries, our crispy bacon, our nuts, or deli meats be without salt? And those are just the obvious foods we know and love for their salty goodness.

When you take into account the flavor miracle that salt works on all food, bringing out all of an ingredient's other features like sweetness and tartness, there really isn't anything this little chemical can't do. At least when it comes to flavor. Unfortunately, when it comes to health, salt's positive attributes fall a bit short.

Read more
Everything you need to know about the Military Diet
Learn about the benefits and risks of the Military Diet
Saltines on a plate for the Military Diet

When you hear of the Military Diet plan, you likely assume it is something that those in the armed services follow. However, the diet is actually not even associated with the military! It is a strict way of eating that social media has popularized.
The Military Diet is designed to be a quick fix for weight loss -- a way to lose a significant amount of weight rapidly. As such, there are real concerns about the safety and sustainability of the Military Diet.
Whether you’ve seen the viral posts on social media of people touting their weight loss success stories on the Military Diet or want to lose weight quickly (we caution you against that) and want to learn more about the Military Diet, keep reading for our guide to the Military Diet, including what the diet entails and whether the Military Diet is actually safe and effective.

What is the Military Diet?
The Military Diet is a fad diet purported to help you lose weight rapidly -- up to 10 pounds (4.5 kg) in one week and 30 pounds in one month -- by restricting calories and revving your metabolism. This diet is high in protein and low in total calories, fat, and complex carbohydrates. The metabolic boost is said to come from consuming certain combinations of foods prescribed on the meal plan. The Military Diet only consists of modifying what you eat and drink. It is a free program, and there are no supplements to take or specific products to buy.

Read more