Tag Archives: Seaweed soup

The Ritual of Miyeok-guk (미역국)

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 20
Occupation: Student
Residence:
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/20/20
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Korean

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. 

Background:

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.” 

Context:

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. 

Thoughts:

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

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Korean
Age: 21
Occupation: Waitress
Residence: Camarillo, California
Date of Performance/Collection: 04/11/19
Primary Language: Korean
Other Language(s): English

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”

Context: 

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.

Analysis:

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

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Korean
Age: 30
Occupation: Nurse in the army
Residence: Texas
Date of Performance/Collection: 3/20/2014
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

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.

 

Korean Ritual: Eating seaweed soup on your birthday, leads to a longer life.

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Korean
Age: 55
Occupation: Homemaker
Residence: Fullerton, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: April 2012
Primary Language: Korean
Other Language(s):

In Korea, everyone eats seaweed soup on their birthdays as it brings them a good year and also a long life.

My informant stated that ever since she could remember, her mother would make her seaweed soup on her birthday. She stated that when she asked her mother why every year and on everyone’s birthday they eat this soup, she stated “By eating this soup on your birthday, you will live a longer life.” When I asked my informant where this belief came from, she stated that the long seaweed represents a longer life line. She also stated that pregnant mothers eat this soup once a day for a month during their pregnancy, so that their child will live a long life.

My informant states that she keeps this ritual alive as she makes this soup for her children every year for their birthdays. I believe that this belief came from the nutritional value of seaweed. Seaweed is also a very affordable and cheap food for people in Korea. I believe that in the poorer areas of Korea, seaweed was easily attainable and thus became a staple for birthdays and in general for subsistence. The symbology of eating a long piece of food on one’s birthday to elongate the eater’s life is also a nice symbol.