Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Birthday seaweed soup (미역국)

Happy birthday to many of my Korean friends on this second week of March!  The coolest triplets I know celebrate their birthday this week.  It's time to celebrate with some yummy miyok gook (미역국) aka seaweed soup.

WHAT?? No birthday cake?

Yep, the Koreans like to stir things up a bit and eat seaweed soup. Koreans traditionally eat miyok gook on their birthdays every year. Why you ask? This tradition stems literally from the day of birth.  The new mother usually eats seaweed soup as the first meal after childbirth and for several weeks following the birth. There are a few reasons miyok gook is eaten as one of the first meals.

Seaweed soup is made of a type of seaweed called miyeok (brown laver), the only kind of seaweed used to make soup. The seaweed, slightly smooth, rubbery, and slimy in texture, is rich in iron and iodine.  The iron is an element that gives blood its color and is an essential nutrient in blood production.  Because a significant amount of blood is lost during the labor, mothers eat the seaweed to replenish the cells and blood supply in the body.

Koreans also believe that new mothers should have a time of rest. They take extra care of their bodies to ensure they are suited for all the tasks of motherhood. This rest period is much like "maternity leave" for new mothers in America, but usually also includes the help of the mother of the new mother. As a part of this rest period, they eat seaweed soup due to its soft texture and ease in swallowing.  Hard, chewy foods take too much work to eat while spicy foods are harsh on the system.

Thus, as mothers eat this as their first meal, the children are also eating the nutrients of the seaweed soup as their first meal through the mother's breast milk.  To remember the first meal of both mother and child as well as the hard work and labor of the mother, individuals eat /drink this soup in memory as their birthday meal.

Happy birthday friends!!  Enjoy your delicious miyok gook today.

Hey! What about those of us that are not Korean or do not have a Korean mom or halmoni (grandma) to cook us up some miyok gook?  We certainly have the right to honor the Korean tradition or even enjoy some of this nutritious soup on a cold winter's day.  High school students also often eat this simple meal the night before an important exam due to the belief that seaweed supports optimal brain function. Optimal brain function would be nice anytime, wouldn't it?!

Let's learn to make our own miyok gook.

You'll need some of the basic Korean ingredients, so check your cupboards and refrigerators first. Then head to your local Asian mart if you need something else.

      soy sauce         sesame oil                    dried seaweed                   minced garlic                    water

You will need:
  • dried seaweed (미역 or wakame in Japanese) ~ 1 oz package
  • Korean sesame oil (기름) ~ 1 tablespoon 
  • soy sauce (간장) ~ 1 1/4 table spoon or to taste
  • minced garlic ~ 1 tablespoon (optional) or as much to taste.  
  • water (or a soup broth of your choice) ~ 6 cups
  • pinch of salt (optional)
Make it: 

Soak dried seaweed in a bowl of warm water for approximately 20 minutes to allow to expand.  Make sure the seaweed is soft. Soak time may vary according to brand of seaweed. When soft, rinse well and drain. Then cut the seaweed into 2 to 4 inch pieces.

Heat a saucepan over medium heat. Once heated add sesame oil, 1/2 tablespoon soy sauce, a little dab of salt and cook for 1 minute.*  Slowly stir in seaweed and remaining soy sauce. Cook for 1 minute more.
Pour in 2 cups of water and bring the ingredients in pan to a boil.  Add garlic and stir.

Pour the ingredients into a large pot.  Add the  remaining 4 cups of water. Bring to a boil, cover, and let simmer on medium heat for 20 minutes or until seaweed and ingredients of choice are tender.
Season to taste with salt, soy sauce, or other fun flavor.  

This soup, like most dishes, is often served with or over rice.  Prepare some rice in advance. If you're like most Asians, there is always rice in the cooker.  Make sure you have enough for the eager mouths.  

When ready, dish the soup into bowls. Quickly serve this healthy delight.  Feel the warmth and energy running through your body with every swallow.

Extra goodies:
Add scallions for additional flavor and consistency.  Cut off the white ends, using only the green part. Chop green part into 2 inch pieces. Add while adding the last 4 cups of water.

Others will like their soup with one, some, or all of the following:

         beef sirloin                                    osyters and/or mussels                                tofu (tubu 두부).

*If you choose to use the beef or oysters and scallions, be sure they are prepared [i.e. cleaned and chopped] for use.  Find the (*) and insert where you add the sesame oil and soy sauce.
**You may also purchase a soft tofu and add this to your soup.  You will use approximately half of a cube. Clean and chop small tofu cubes before pouring into the soup.   I add the tofu right before letting the pot simmer.  Others will add it at the very end.  Do a little experimentation and figure out what works best for you.

Hope you enjoy your seaweed soup!  Have fun with it and make it your own! Korean cooking isn't about following a recipe or an exact science it's about mixing, matching and finding the flavors you love most.

Be nourished and loved with a warm bowl of miyok gook today!  

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