Seaweed Soup is a popular traditional Korean dish.
Original script: 미역국
Phonetic (Roman) script: Miyeok-guk
Translation: Seaweed soup
The following is transcribed and translated from a conversation between the interviewer and the informant.
Informant: Out of all the Korean soup dishes, and there are lots and lots of it, miyeok guk (seaweed soup) probably has the most ties with meanings and stuff. It’s most famous for being the soup that people eat for their birthday breakfast. And it’s mostly breakfast, I don’t think people eat this for their birthday lunch of dinner. So a lot of foreigners call miyeok guk the ‘birthday soup’.
Interviewer: Where did that birthday tradition start?
Informant: I’m not sure when or where, but it originates from how miyeok guk is served to women who had just gave birth. It’s like, high inn iron and iodine and stuff, so it’s seen as really good postpartum food. It’s the first thing moms eat after giving birth, so it’s the first thing that babies eat when they’re born too. I think people eat this soup for birthdays because of this, to remember where they start from and remember their mothers.
Interviewer: Is there any other meanings tied to the soup?
Informant: Koreans also avoid this soup the day before or the day of an important exam. Seaweed has this slippery texture and I think it reminds people of like, slipping, falling, failing, all that bad stuff you don’t want reminded of before an exam.
Interviewer: What if there’s an exam on the day of your birthday?
Informant: (laughs) I guess you have no choice then.
My informant, woman in her 50s, was born and raised in Korea but immigrated to the United States when she was in her 30s. Though she doesn’t recall when or where she acquired this piece of folklore, but she describes it as such a common piece of food knowledge that all Koreans are aware of it from a very early age.
The conversation was conducted over a phone, while the informant was at the comforts of her own house. The conversation took place in Korean, and was then translated into English by myself.
Korea has a rich history with its traditional cuisine, and plenty of lore around these food items. Eating a meal on your birthday to remind yourself of your mother’s labor sounded appropriate, as Korean culture is built heavily around Confucianism.