‘All mothers care for their daughters': A traditional Korean dish honors motherhood through children’s birthdays

Bowl with seaweed
A completed recipe of miyeok guk, Korean seaweed soup. It's made to celebrate birthdays, but also as a means of reminding those who eat it of the postpartum journey their mothers have gone through.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

Birthdays are about celebrating the arrival of a child, but in Korean tradition, one special dish made every birthday honors motherhood and the relationships between parents and their children. 

During my husband’s birthday weekend, his favorite foods are on the menu: baked mac n’ cheese and yellow cake with fudge frosting. Aaron chooses these every year, but I always make a small pot of miyeok guk — seaweed soup. 

Hand takes seaweed
Hannah Yang lifts a handful of seaweed.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

I wash and soak the dehydrated seaweed in cold water. As a kid, I always wondered how the green slimy things you find in the ocean transformed into these crinkly strands. Now, whenever I make it, the smells and the taste remind me of my Umma, my mom, making Korean food for me. 

It’s simple: mostly seaweed, with stew beef sauteed in sesame oil, soy sauce and garlic. There’s a secret ingredient my Umma uses, and I think she’d get mad if I revealed what it was, but it’s key to add it to give the soup that extra depth of flavor. 

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Every birthday, she’d cook it for my birthday without fail. For my oppa, my older brother, and my appa, my dad, too. Umma tells me after each birthday, she would eat miyeok guk during postpartum recovery, my halmoni, my grandmother, made for her. 

There are health benefits to eating seaweed, which is rich in iron and vitamins. It’s the epitome of home cooking, as my Umma calls it. 

child sits at table
Hannah Yang celebrating her first birthday in Strongsville, Ohio in January 1994. The ceremony is known as dol or doljanchi, which is a Korean tradition that celebrates the first birthday of a baby. This ceremony blesses the child with a prosperous future and has taken on great significance in Korea. Doljabi is a tradition where the baby is placed in front of various items or objects. Then, the baby is encouraged to grab one or two items from the set of objects where each choice symbolizes a certain future of the baby with respect to his or her career or a lifestyle. A pencil means they will be a scholar; rice means never going hungry and string can indicate they will live a long life. Yang grabbed a pencil, which might tie to her career as a journalist.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

“In Korea, starting from when you’re in the hospital, from when the baby is born you eat miyeok guk,” she said. “So there was a point that for one month, I just ate seaweed soup.”

Postpartum care is known as sanhujori. It’s traditionally provided by the new mother’s family members and in-law families. They cook healthy, warm foods and help care for the baby while the mother recovers.

It’s also important to keep the body warm. For Korean mothers, getting exposed to even a cold breeze is considered a taboo. Umma said it’s because if a new mother fails to keep her body warm, it’s believed she may become susceptible to a life-long illness. 

When Umma gave birth at the hospital in the United States, she found a very different approach to postpartum recovery. 

“What surprised me was the different culture,” she said. “When I gave birth in an American hospital, I wanted to eat miyeok guk. I said I could eat something warm because I was cold. But at the hospital, they gave me ice cream.”

By eating miyeok guk on our birthday, we’re reminded to thank our mothers by eating the same food they did postpartum. Umma said that my halmoni took care of her after each birth, staying for almost a month until she recovered. 

Woman holds baby
Hyun Ji Kim and her daughter, Hannah Yang.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

“All mothers care for their daughters,” Umma said. “If they take off their socks, they put them back on. Even when they don’t want to, they still put it back on for them. They dress them in warm clothes, otherwise later it’ll get strenuous.”

And they make birthday soup. 

My parents immigrated to the United States in the 1980’s. They wanted to be sure my oppa and I grew up speaking Korean in the house and we ate Korean food for pretty much every meal. Umma says she was so happy that I learned how to cook, adding “If you didn’t learn, or didn’t want to learn, then [cooking Korean food] could end with my generation.”

I didn’t marry a Korean, but Umma said she was so happy Aaron and his family love Korean food. She also loves that there are traditions we can pass down to our own kids someday.

Now, I’m cooking these dishes in my own kitchen. I cooked my Umma’s soup for my husband in celebration of his birthday. He asked me to teach him how to make it so that he could make me miyeok guk on my birthday next winter. 

Because of my Umma, whenever I choose to have kids of my own, miyeok guk will be on the menu to remind them of me, just like I’m reminded of my own mother. 

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.