Variations on a Theme: French Steak Tartare Versus Korean Yukhoe

Steak tartare and Korean Yukhoe, variations on a theme comprised of unadulterated beef. Hal Swindall takes a look at the two famed dishes.

Some tell tales of culinarily ignorant American tourists in France who order steak tartare because they have heard of it and it sounds fancy, only to be mortified when they receive a plate of raw beef.

I hereby admit that I was such as one of those mentioned above, but that rather than revulsion I felt fascination for the dish. I ate all of it, and found that besides ground raw beef it contained chopped onions and capers. It intrigued me so much that I never forgot it, and always wanted to try it again.

Flash forward a decade and more to Korea, when I noticed it as one of the “So French!” entries on the menu of Merciel French restaurant’s brasserie on Dalmaji Hill. Around the same time, I learned about steak tartare’s Korean equivalent, yukhoe, in the Seoul Wine Guide published by the French Korean Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Just the year before last I had the opportunity to try this dish in the area near Jongno 5-ga subway station in Seoul, whither I was led by a Korea University student.

The variety I was served was raw slices mixed with lettuce and gojang into a salad served in a steel bowl. It did not taste as good as the Paris steak tartare, to tell the truth, and I marveled at how a dish that originated on the Russian steppes and spread across the Eurasian landmass, which is one theory of its genesis, could take such different forms. The experience served, nonetheless, to make me want to try Merciel’s version of steak tartare all the more.

This I finally did. Its standard recipe is coarsely chopped raw beef mixed with spicy French mustard, raw egg yolk, gherkins, capers and seasonings. On the side are green salad and fries served with the house mayonnaise–no ketchup on fries at Merciel! Despite the mustard and seasonings, the overall flavor of Merciel’s tartare is mellow, with the tang of the gherkins standing out.

The texture is soft and easy to chew, not at all nauseating as some might expect from mixing raw ingredients. Unlike the steak tartare I tried in Paris, Merciel’s is room temperature. Its price is 32,000 won, i.e. mid-range, well worth it for an unusual dish.

Determined to give yukhoe another go, I took myself to Yukhoe Brothers’ PNU branch on Chicken St. one Saturday night, where I ordered a serving for 28,000 won. This came shortly with the traditional side of thinly sliced Korean pear and a dish of sauce at each corner of the serving tray. One was soy and wasabe, one sesame oil, one gochujang and lastly makjang. Beside the pear was some sliced garlic. The beef was of course highest-quality freezer-fresh Hanu, since restaurants serving raw meat must be extremely careful about avoiding poisoning diners. It was worthy of trying, especially with the makjang; the beef was also well complemented by the pear, even if one would not normally think of the two going together.

Yukhoe Brothers is good, yet I found the best Korean-style raw beef in the Busan area thanks to my student April, who offered to lead me to a place named Unamjeong in Cheolma, a neighborhood in Gijang County that has many such restaurants. It is a typical traditional Korean establishment in which diners remove their shoes and sit on mats at low tables.

I ordered the yukhoe sashimi for around 35,000 won, which was soon served because it does not need to be cooked. It proved to be thin squares of marbled Hanu, and was naturally accompanied by numerous banchan and gochang for dipping. This beef sashimi is semi-frozen, making it hard to chew; nevertheless, it is interesting to eat. A little later, we were served a bowl of raw ground Hanu on a bed of thinly sliced pear, and it was much better. I paid for all, and thanked April for taking me here.

Personally, I cannot help preferring the French steak tartare over Korean yukhoe, and most expats would probably agree. Nevertheless, they both deliver the true flavor of beef with all its nutritional value unadulterated by cooking. Next on my to-do list is raw horse flesh, which I understand can be had on Jeju-do, in Japan and francophone Switzerland. Some readers might find my delight in raw meat disgusting, but to each his own. The restaurants I have described are always there to convert skeptics. My only caveat is not to try to fix this dish at home.


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