K-Pop and K-Drama enthusiasts are all too familiar with the concept of eating seaweed soup, or miyeok guk as it is called, on one’s birthday. But have you ever wondered what is the origin story of this specific custom?
Like any other traditional practice, this also carries a mixture of different inspirations—from empirical science to mythology. According to a historical record dating back to the Tang Dynasty, Koreans in the Goryeo era (which began around the year 918) observed that whales eat seaweed after giving birth. Taking mother nature’s lead, people started to follow suit, serving seaweed soup to women who had just given birth.
A Joseon dynasty scholar named Yi Gyu Gyeong popularized the idea of seaweed being beneficial for pregnant whales through his story. Yi wrote about a man who was swallowed up by a whale while out at sea. When the man was inside the whale’s stomach, he noticed it was full of seaweed. The fish initially had dark-colored, clotted blood, which then got purified by the seaweed. After managing to come out alive from the whale’s stomach, the man told others of seaweed’s effectiveness in promoting recovery after birth.
According to traditional folklore, seaweed soup is also dedicated to the deity Samshin Halmoni, the three goddesses of childbirth and fate in Korean mythology. In old times, people would place miyeok guk next to the pillow of a pregnant woman a week before she was due to give birth in hopes of a safe delivery.
So, through multiple influences, seaweed soup became a primary part of women’s postpartum diet in Korean culture. Women would spend months strictly consuming this one food item while recovering from childbirth. This practice branched off into an adjacent tradition of eating miyeok guk on one’s birthday as a way to show respect to one’s mother and the hardships she had to endure to give birth.
Scientifically, seaweed does have beneficial properties that specifically new mothers might need in abundance. It is high in iodine and calcium, both of which are needed during lactation. Wakame seaweed, the most common type used in miyeok guk, is also high in Omega 3. A 100 g of the plant carries approximately 180 mg of omega-3 fatty acids, which is an essential nutrient during pregnancy and lactation for normal fetal and infant neurological development and adult neurological health.
Looks like following mother nature was a worthy idea! Who knew such a staple tradition carried so many years of wisdom and scientific observation behind it?