It’s a feeling many Koreans might understand — walking into the kitchen on the morning of your birthday only to be hit by the smell of briny ocean air. Brewing on the stove is a pot of miyeokguk, or seaweed (miyeok) soup (guk), made with the slippery brown seaweed one might recognize washed ashore at the beach. Regardless of how you feel about the taste, that same slippery goodness will often accompany your celebratory day. But where does this Korean tradition come from?
Birthday miyeokguk stems from another Korean tradition of new mothers eating the soup to aid in postpartum recovery. For the first few months after childbirth, Korean women will often consume the dish for up to several meals per day for its nutritional benefits — and how that tradition originated is where it gets interesting.
Records from China’s ancient Tang Dynasty indicate that the practice was observed in Korea’s Goryeo Dynasty, which ruled Korea as early as the year 918. Koreans at the time noticed that whales would eat seaweed after giving birth to their calves. Inspired by mother nature, women began to consume it as well.
More legends throughout Korean history delve further into the whale’s association with the tradition of eating miyeokguk, including a tale by a scholar of the Joseon dynasty, Yi Gyu Gyeong, who emphasized its health benefits. According to Gwangju Daily News, Yi wrote that a man out at sea was swallowed up by a whale that had just given birth. Inside of the whale’s stomach, the man noticed there was seaweed. While the whale initially had “bad blood” — darker-colored, clotted blood — the seaweed was said to purify it. Thus, after coming out of the whale’s stomach, the man told others of seaweed’s effectiveness in promoting recovery after birth.
Korean mythology also played a role in building the tradition, as miyeokguk was often placed at the table on the day a child was born as part of a ritual prepared for the goddess of childbearing. Known as the Samshin halmoni, the goddess was thought to oversee the child’s life and health. Koreans would also place a bowl of miyeokguk by an expectant mother’s pillow for around a week before the baby was due in hopes that the goddess would bring blessings to the baby.
As miyeokguk became a staple food in the postpartum diet and a symbol of birth, it seems only natural that it is a traditional birthday meal familiar to so many today. But there is a little more to it. Eating miyeokguk on birthdays is supposed to be in remembrance of the days your mother spent eating it while recovering from giving birth, a way of showing respect to the one who brought you into the world.