Korean food is a much desirable and sought-after cuisine. We’ve all heard of Bulgogi and Beef Galbi; if you’re lucky enough to taste these in the country of Korea, consider yourself blessed. But, you’ll also notice that, in South Korea, these dishes also come with a gouging price tag. You might wonder why the cost is so high.
So, Koreans are paying the highest price for average quality beef. Korean beef, or Hanwoo beef, is the most prized of all meats in Korea, with the cattle holding a special and important cultural role.
So, their care isn’t cheap and each cow has meticulous food and medical records. This makes it one of the rarest yet most difficult types of beef to come by.
Why Is Beef So Expensive in Korea?
Unfortunately beef in Korea has always been much higher than even imported beef. 100 g of high-quality beef is 7,472 won for one steak ($6.38 USD) and this price increases more and more every year across the country. 42% comes from the exorbitant prices for distribution, but there are other things that come into the equation as well.
Production Costs; Policies
Between 2012 and 2013, beef prices fell but there were increases in production costs in relation to the beef. This includes the prices of feed and employee wages.
What compounded this was the government’s policy to reduce the number of female cows. This ended up causing farms to close because they were losing money along with being unable to breed these cattle.
Import; Export Restrictions in South Korea
What’s more, the continued absence of U.S. beef imports, which once made up ½ of all Korea’s beef consumption, kept the market undersupplied. These high costs are now the responsibility of the consumer wishing to purchase them.
In Seoul, South Korea, customers pay on average $31 per pound of US beef imports while in Japan, they pay around $21 per pound.
Limited Space; Strains on Demand
In Korea, there are limits to the land space available throughout the country to be able to raise enough cattle that match the demand. So, this is yet another factor that impacts the high price of beef. Since the lift of the ban on exporting Korean beef in 2010, this has put a further strain on domestic demand.
Hanwoo cattle are some of the most difficult to raise and establish. The cows don’t produce much milk either. So, it takes a long time for one cow to be ready for slaughter. But the end results of raising this type of cattle are worth it for the taste and quality of the beef.
Alternatives to Hanwoo Beef in Korea
To combat the rising prices and to still be able to serve delicious traditional dishes, there has been a rise in plant-based substitutes over the last decade. Today, one-fifth of the Korean population is now eating less meat.
Younger generations seem to be driving this trend, however. The price is much lower than for any other type of meat on the market, but there are some concerns among the culture.
Concerns around Plant-Based Meat Products
Although beef consumption has lowered quite a bit in Seoul in recent years, there is a debate around this kind of replacement. This is because many scientific studies are finding how unhealthy these alternatives can be.
Some are high in preservatives and sodium while others comprise known carcinogens and other chemicals famous for causing serious health effects.
What’s more, certain ingredients aren’t as vegan-friendly as many may suppose. Of course this depends on the company producing it, but it’s often promoted to non-meat-eating people when some actually contain some animal byproducts.
Since this is such a new technology in the food industry, people are apprehensive about its consumption and general health. Also, the taste doesn’t seem to be too pleasing.
Japanese vs Korean Beef
Aside from the prices that consumers pay, there are other differences when it comes to Japanese beef versus Hanwoo meat that comes from Korea. This whittles down to the fact that Japan has four different types of cows that provide beef. Korea only has one.
Wagyu, Kobe; Hanwoo
In Japan, Wagyu and Kobe are the most popular types of beef produced while in Korea, they raise Hanwoo. Although they have or import all three types of beef in South Korea, all three also have popularity across the world.
Hanwoo beef is more expensive than either Wagyu or Kobe. This all refers back to the basic law of economics with supply and demand.
There simply aren’t enough Hanwoo cattle produced to meet the demands of the market. So, Wagyu and Kobe tend to be more popular because they are more available. This results in Wagyu and Kobe costing a little less than Hanwoo beef, but not by much.
Although all three types of cattle have higher standards of care, Hanwoo and Wagyu have beer as part of their daily diet. Apparently, the alcohol content in beer is what makes the meat juicy and tender. The Wagyu diet consists of mostly oats whereas Hanwoo cows eat mostly corn. The price of corn is also slightly higher than oats.
The marbling in Hanwoo, Kobe, or Wagyu is very desirable. But, Hanwoo has the least amount and doesn’t have the same beefy taste as beef from the US or Australia.
Wagyu and Kobe meats are also much fattier than Hanwoo. This makes Hanwoo beef a healthier choice that comes with higher quality.
What about Other Types of Meat?
Of course, there are other meats available in Korea other than beef. Chicken and pork are top choices and less expensive than beef. Many Koreans will sometimes use these in their traditional meals and dishes as a replacement for beef.
Is Chicken Expensive in Korea?
It costs 4,918.72 won in Korea for one pound of chicken and in Seoul, it costs 6,050 won. In US dollars, this translates to roughly $4.11 and $5.19 respectively. This is definitely a more viable option when it comes to affordability in comparison to beef.
Several famous Korean dishes use chicken and give the ones with beef a run for its prices. Andong jjimdak (a popular chicken dish from South Korea), Samgyetang (a delicious soup), Dakbokkeumtang (a type of stir fry) and Dak Galbi (a variety of stir-fried chicken) are excellent and come at a lower cost.
Plus, raised chickens are small, quick, and easy to care for. This means Korea’s farmers can have more chickens on a smaller plot of land and still be profitable. Plus, this becomes more affordable for the local economy since it’s simpler to provide.
Is Pork Expensive in Korea?
Pork is around the same price as chicken in Korea, including Seoul. In September of 2021, it costs about 5,869 won, or $5.01 USD, for one pound of pork. So, there is a wider array of options for meat consumption than solely relying on what meat can provide.
Plus, pork can be a replacement for beef in some traditional dishes like Bulgogi, where chicken may not make the cut in regards to flavor. Pigs are smaller and quicker to raise, so it’s easier to have more farms in Korea that produce pigs than for cows.
Hanwoo beef is not only the most delicious meat in Korea, but it’s also the most expensive. This is because of various factors that affect the laws of supply and demand. Lack of available farmland, government policies, import duties, production costs, and distribution all play into how pricey it is.
Although many alternative plant-based slices of meat are coming out, pork and chicken tend to be much more affordable. Plus, with supply lines have come to a screeching halt in recent years, prices will not be going down for the foreseeable future.
But, if you ever have the money and the opportunity to try a dish with Hanwoo, you won’t regret it. It will be one of the most delicious things you’ve ever had the privilege to eat.