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Korea rediscovers grass-fed beef : ‘All-natural’ trend revives old approach to raising cattle

Sept 25,2017
Top: Chef Moon Seung-zoo of Sougetsu, left, and chef Kim Ho-yoon, formerly of Soigne, collaborate on a pop-up event featuring Korean grass-fed beef. Bottom: Moon slices a cut of grass-fed sirloin steak.[TASTY COOK BOOK]
Two dishes from a pop-up event featuring Morning Farm beef. On top is sirloin lightly seasoned with 14-year-old soy sauce, and at left is raw meat from the cow’s front legs. [TASTY COOK BOOK]
To judge the quality of hanwoo (premium Korean beef), one must look at how well the fat is layered. A well-marbled piece of meat is considered ideal, and cattle raisers have figured out that feeding their cows with grain can produce more refined layers of fat inside red meat.

But some farms have started raising a not-so-impertinent question: Do the cows even like to eat such grain fodder?

Morning Farm in Asan, South Chungcheong, is one of few ranches that have begun to feed cows as past generations did: feeding them grass as they might have in the wild.

Kim Seong-ki, the farm’s managing director, used to feed grain to his cows like most farmers did. But one day, as he was walking past his cows with a stack of hay, Kim said he saw the cow’s eyes “sparkle.” They couldn’t take their eyes off the hay.

“People now often talk about more natural ways of growing things, especially when it comes to food, so why not make cows happier by giving them food that might feel more natural to them?” Kim said. “We are not saying our way is the right way, but we want to show everyone out there that we have done it.”

It’s been about a year since the farm changed its feed to a mix of dry and boiled hay, and they are now trying to find more ways to promote what they’re doing and see if there’s a market for their beef. After months of testing its 160 cows, the farm is now more confident that chefs and those who cook at home will find its beef is just as tasty as beef from cows fed with grain.

The farm is also preparing to sell its products online to make them more easily available to individual consumers at home.

Kim said the farm was hesitant to approach big restaurants for sales so far because it has a limited amount of beef and cannot promise a steady supply.

But by opening an online store, Morning Farm can test the waters and decide whether it can sustain business with its grass-fed cows. A sirloin steak goes for 13,500 won per 100 grams ($3.37 per ounce), set competitively against beef prices at major supermarkets.

“There are many small farmers or individuals who produce small quantities of something that may not be mainstream,” said Jang Eun-sil, editor-in-chief of Tasty Cook Book, a publisher and event organizer related to food and beverages.

Jang recently organized a pop-up event featuring beef from Morning Farm and two local chefs who have shown interest in rare ingredients. Moon Seung-zoo of the Japanese restaurant Sougetsu and Kim Ho-yoon, formerly of the modern Korean restaurant Soigne, teamed up to serve beef from cows that are raised on farms a bit differently from others at an event at Sorori by Wolhayng in the Hongdae area of western Seoul.

They chose different beef parts to put together a five-course dinner for two days last week, adding sauces and garnishes to highlight the beef’s taste. The five-course meal included raw meat from the front legs, brisket soup with ribs, a Japanese-style marinated beef dish made from the rump, grilled sirloin for the main and sushi made with the chuck tail flap.

“We tasted all different parts and chose parts that we thought we could present in the best way,” Moon said.

To show how much gamchilmat, or umami, a particular beef had, the chefs served broth made with dasima, a type of seaweed essential in Japanese soup. They had diners taste the dasima broth first and then added the broth boiled with brisket in the same bowl.

“We wanted to show what gamchilmat is by serving different broth consequently,” Moon said.

Kim even brought out soy sauce he had made in 2003 and matured until now for the first time for this event to lightly season the sirloin.

He also procured different herbs and vegetables from farms that lined up with the mission of Morning Farm: to make food from organisms as naturally as possible.

The chefs even decided to smoke the sirloin with hay to remind diners at the pop-up of the cows’ grassy diet.

“Since we had one ingredient to spotlight at this event, it was easier for us to research what additional garnishes and sauces we needed to prepare,” Kim said. “It was not only educational for us, but also made me realize I need to try to meet more farmers and growers in Korea.”

The two chefs, both of whom did not have any previous knowledge of grass-feed beef in Korea, acknowledged there are more ingredients available in the country that are still not known. Even when farmers growing plants and raising animals far away from Seoul do make products of good quality, unless they have connections to showcase their produce to restaurants and businesses, they often fold, thinking there’s no market for their products.

Kim said sometimes ingredients are exported to neighboring countries first, so chefs overseas find out about them before chefs in Korea.

“We need to continue trying to find each other, farmers and chefs, so that farmers can have economy of scale to keep on developing their items,” Kim said. “The Agriculture Ministry can’t do all this work, and we need more agencies who can create retail channels.”

BY LEE SUN-MIN [summerlee@joongang.co.kr]