Beef: Why in Korea it is such a Luxury Item

By Kalina Ewing

If you have watched many Korean shows you may have noticed a trend with beef. When beef is mentioned it seems to be almost a revered item of great expense. Although beef around the world is not exactly cheap I wondered why in Korea it seemed to be even more of a luxury item. Cattle were previously only used as labour animals and seen as too important to eat. They were revered and forbidden to be eaten by the Buddhist religion in Goryeo. It was not until the Joseon era and Confucianism that the consumption of cattle was allowed but only by the elite of society. It was not until the 1960s after the Korean war when people began to move from the country into urban centers that cattle in Korea began to be consumed more by all classes. Land in Korea is difficult to come by since it is a hilly, rocky country. So any land that is used for farming or ranching is limited, due to the fact that most of the habitable land is lived upon. So the cows that are raised on this land do not have a large area to range and feed.

There are four types of native cattle on the peninsula; Hanwoo (brown), Chikso (brindle), Heugu (black, located throughout Korea), and Jeju (black, only located on Jeju island.

The Hanwoo cattle are said to be the highest quality (1++) are said to rival the flavour of Kobe and Wagyu beef (in Korea the grade of beef goes from 1++ at the highest down to a 3). The beef is highly marbled and said to be very sweet (to achieve this texture the cattle are fed a special grain-based diet). This type of beef is very expensive and considered the highest quality in Korea. The other locally butchered beef is not considered as tender and full of flavour as they do not have the marbling throughout the meat that of Hanwoo cattle. Due to this fact they do not sell as high a price. Breeding for cattle in Korea especially the Hanwoo cattle is tightly controlled only allowing for the best of the breed and it’s genetics to be passed on. This helped to drive the price of beef in Korea to almost unattainable prices except again for the elite and wealthy.

For many years Korea had closed its borders to foreign markets of beef due to fears of BSE or Mad Cow Disease. Once the borders reopened the fear still tainted the foreign beef imports. Also many say the taste of the beef which has been previously frozen is not as good as fresh local beef. All this is said to have raised the price of beef because of market demand. But since 2016 in Korea antigraft laws prevent people from presenting gifts of over 50000 won to public servants and their spouses or 100000 won at private events such as funerals and weddings where it was common to present a gift basket of Hanwoo beef.

But in recent years Koreans have begun to demand beef that is not as high in fat but still as tender and full of flavour. This has led the breeders of cattle to look how to appease both appetites but not lose the quality of the meat. This demand with the anti-graft laws have led to a slight price drop but it has not led to a decline in the reverence for beef as a special occasion food and will doubtfully in the future as if Koreans tend to favour the locally grown meat.

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