Tag Archives: Seaweed soup

Birthday Miyeok-Guk Soup


Eating miyeok-guk (seaweed soup) every birthday morning to honor your mother.


After giving birth, Korean women traditionally eat a lot of seaweed soup because of its nutritional value. Based off of that, people eat this soup to honor their mothers for giving birth. JK mentioned that she does this every year and that this is a tradition that she shares with the wider Korean community: “It does feel like a way to not only honor my mother, but also honor my Korean culture because it’s not just something my family does.” Even though it was her first year in college, she was still able to have some miyeok-guk this year, since her Spring Break aligned with her birthday! This soup reminds JK of home and family–it’s a food of comfort alongside healing.


It is intriguing to see the various ways in which different cultures celebrate birthdays. In America, birthdays are very centered around the child: we are celebrating them turning a year older and reflecting on their past accomplishments as promises for a bright, successful future. Illustrative of our forward-driven society, we underscore this emergence into a new phase of life, which requires that we place full attention and focus on the person who’s aging. However, in past-oriented cultures, birthdays acknowledge the mother as the sole reason for the existence of a birthday. By drinking miyeok-guk, children are cherishing their mothers and recognizing the sacrifice and dedication that goes into motherhood. Thus, people are appreciating the past–the period of time before they were born, when their mother was carrying them.

After some research, I found that this tradition was most likely inspired by people noticing whales eating seaweed after giving birth. In this era of “posthumanism,” where we are understanding that humans are not the only ones with culture, it is fascinating to see how much of our practices are inspired by animals and the ways of nature. We share cultures across species and this “wealth of consciousness” can inform so many of our folk beliefs. Knowledge is very dynamic, and aspects of human tradition appear to be validated by animal customs, as we hold certain beliefs to be universal and beyond humanity.



Informant: So in Korea there’s this soup called Miyeok Guk. It is…  Essentially like a seaweed soup. And um… Seaweed has like iron in it, I believe. And in your blood… Your like hemoglobin has iron in it as well? So Korean reasoning is that, whenever a woman gives birth, she loses a lot of blood with that. So to make up for it, you should have food that can supply your body with iron, such as Miyeok Guk and seaweed. So on birthdays, in addition to like cake and just like normal birthday routines, the traditional side of it is eating Miyeok Guk and seaweed… For the iron that your mom lost. 


Informant: I do practice this. Cause I like Miyeok Guk.

Interviewer: So you’re really consuming it for the taste? 

Informant: Yeah… I mean… I also think that we all have a desire to keep our culture going. I think when we’re younger it was easy to forget about and not care. Like, “Who cares what they’ve done for a thousand years, Imma do me…” My dad was born in Korea but moved to Guam and later Hawaii and later Anaheim. So he’s very Americanized. My mom didn’t leave Korea until college, so she was always the more traditional Korean side of the family… But my dad and I are more Americanized. Um… But yeah, as time has gone on, I feel like it’s good to keep some things, even if it has zero significance or importance… Even if it’s just soup that reminds me of my mom, it’s nice to continue on with those little traditions. 


Korean birthday tradition honors the mother by including food that recognizes the hardship of childbirth. The informant, while also consuming Miyeok Guk for taste, has grown to appreciate this food as a symbol of his mother. This is multifaceted, as Miyeok Guk is both a Korean symbol of the mother in general, but also a reminder of the informant’s mother specifically, who passed this tradition onto him. This demonstrates how food can have a “broad” cultural significance, but also a more intimate, immediate, familial significance. Thus, there are several reasons that food traditions might be upheld. This tradition also seems to hint at an appreciation for the mother within Korean culture. 

The Ritual of Miyeok-guk (미역국)

Main Piece:

The following is transcribed from a conversation between me (LT) and my informant (GK). 

GK: Every year on your birthday, you eat the same thing, and it’s Seaweed Soup. The Korean name is Miyeok-guk (미역국), which literally translates to “seaweed soup.” 

LT: I’m assuming there’s something symbolic there, right?

GK: You’re supposed to eat it because apparently your mother eats it during pregnancy, and it fortifies her blood. I’m not sure what that means, or if my parents just made it up, but apparently all Koreans do it because I watched a docuseries where this Korean dude does it. But I guess it’s supposed to connect you to your mom somehow. 


Although GK was born and raised in Los Angeles, her parents are originally from South Korea, and they kept Korean culture very alive throughout her upbringing. She has been eating Seaweed Soup for as long as she can remember, whether it be for her birthday or a relative’s. During the interview, she points out that they eat this soup regularly, not just on birthdays. It’s actually one of her favorite meals that her parents make when she’s home from college. To her, this soup symbolizes love. In our conversation, GK says “My parents… they don’t show love externally often, but they do by cooking.” 


GK is one of my best friends from high school, and she’s the only one who left California to go to college (where she’s currently quarantined). This piece was collected during one of our routine catch-up FaceTime calls. 


I believe this ritual reflects the nature of Korean familial relationships. While GK’s parents don’t fit the stereotypical “tiger mom” image we often see of Asian American parents, they still hold her to a high standard and expect her to be respectful. There is a sense of formality and strength in Korean home lives. The exception to this is food. Cooking is a labor of love where a parent shows they care about their child by devoting time, money, and energy into something they can enjoy. It’s what connects them. In regards to this specific meal, pregnancy is a time where a child and their mother are the most connected they’ll ever be. By a child eating the same thing their mother ate during that time, it symbolically recreates that bond, showing it’s still there. Even the tone of GK’s voice when describing this ritual was much softer and more loving than how she normally speaks about her parents. 

For further reading on the role food plays in Korean households:

Cho, Grace M. “Kimchi Blues.” Gastronomica, vol. 12, no. 2, 2012, pp. 53–58.

Seaweed Soup on Birthdays -A Korean Tradition

Main Text:

HK: “On somebody’s birthday it is tradition to have seaweed soup”

Collector: “Can it be any kind of seaweed soup?”

HK: “I don’t think it really matters, but there are a lot of traditional recipes for seaweed soup out there”


HK moved to the Unites States from South Korea when she was in kindergarten. After being raised in different parts of Asia an coming to the United States HK has acquired many traditions, customs and folk beliefs that have been passed down from her family. The ritualistic act of eating seaweed soup at someone’s birthday is just one example of a ritual that HK told me during my collection helps to keep her culture alive. She said that at least for her family specifically, having rituals and customs like these allow for people living in the Unites States to still connect with their family and homeland in Korea. This connection that HK feels to her culture and family is one reason that she says that she will continue to educate and pass down this seaweed-eating ritual. Another reason that she says that she remembers such a ritual is that it has happened on every one of her birthday’s so that if she evert had a birthday without it, it would not actually feel like a special moment anymore to her.


According to HK when asked why the meal of choice for a birthday is seaweed soup she said that it is related to another ritualistic act what they give to the mother after giving birth because it helps to nourish the body. One obvious interpretation of why it is a Korean tradition to eat seaweed soup at the birth of a child and at a child’s birthday party is the nutritional value of seaweed. Seaweed has high quantities of calcium, magnesium, iron and other important nutrients.  It makes sense for a mother to eat this after brith for this reason because magnesium and iron will aid in a quick recovery of the energy and bloodlust that naturally occurs at birth. The second reason for why this tradition may have occurred in the first place and is still being passed down is the accessibility to seaweed. Most of Korea is bordered by Ocean where seaweed is highly accessible. This accessibility could lead one to believe that seaweed has been eaten as this tradition for centuries because it is cheap and easily accessible to even the common folk. This ease in retrieving and eating the seaweed has led to South Korea pressing about 90 percent of the country’s seaweed crop and to cultivate it they just let it grow on ropes that float near the surface of the water by tethered boeys.

To summarize, in addition to the explanation that HK provided of feeling close to one’s family and culture, there are two other explanations that help understand the reasons that it is traditional to eat seaweed at birth and on somebody’s birthday: The first reason is its obvious nutrient values that help growth and recovery of one’s body and the second reason its Korea’s ease in accessing such a food and its large farming industry that has been built around this access.


Drinking Seaweed Soup

Drinking Seaweed Soup

미역은 피를 깨끗하게 해주니까 먹는거야. 그래서 임신한 엄마들이 먹는거야.

니가 너의 엄마를 기억하기위해 생일날에 매년 먹는거지.

미역은 엄마의 젖도 깨끘해주니까 엄마들은 먹어, 아이를 위해서.


You drink miyuk gook (seaweed soup) as a mom while you’re pregnant to give good nutrients to the child. Miyuk is known to cleanse the blood, so it is good for pregnant women. After the child is born, the child eats seaweed soup on his or her birthday every year to continue to receive good nutrients as well as to remember the mother who bore him or her.

Miyuk also helps make the breast milk healthy. The mother ultimately eats miyuk gook for the health of the child.