Food for Thought: Seaweed Soup

The symbolism of seaweed soup in Korean culture

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Bowl of seaweed soup served on a brown table with a bowl of rice
South Koreans honour our mothers on our birthdays with this ancient tradition. Photo Credit: Republic of Korea / Flickr

By: Yelin Gemma Lee, Arts & Culture Editor

On your birthday, your friends and family often celebrate you for coming into this world and continuing to age well. The older I grew, the less this made sense to me. I didn’t really do much to be born, whereas my mother went through being pregnant for nine months, giving birth to me, and raising me selflessly. In South Korea, there is a historical food practice we’ve integrated into our culture to recognize this and honour our mothers on our own birthdays. This is seaweed soup. You may have seen it being served in Korean dramas, during someone’s birthday. 

The origins of seaweed soup began in the Goryeo dynasty when people noticed that after giving birth, whales would eat lots of seaweed. Seaweed is rich in vitamins and minerals and has properties ideal for postnatal mothers. They began serving mothers seaweed soup after giving birth to strengthen both the mother and baby.

It became customary to put seaweed soup “next to a pregnant woman’s pillow on the week before birth.” This was an offering to Samsin Halmoni, “the three goddesses of childbirth and destiny in Korean mythology who assist in childbirth and blesses newborns.” 

In modern society, children often grow up with their mothers making seaweed soup for them on their birthdays as a token of thanks for being born safe and healthy. When the child grows up, this is done for them by their close friends, family members, or partners. 

When I became an adult, I began to make my mother the seaweed soup on my birthday to signify my thanks for her giving me life and raising me. In the west, it’s common to celebrate mothers on Mother’s Day but I feel that special connection to her most on my birthday. I treat it as such by setting a Korean breakfast for her featuring seaweed soup. The historical and cultural origins of the soup represent honour for the mother.

I’ve found it difficult to find seaweed soup being sold at Korean restaurants here in Vancouver, but luckily it is so simple to make at home. The more obscure ingredients like dried seaweed or bonito soup stock can be found at Korean supermarkets like Hannam, H-Mart, or Assi Market. I usually make a simple bachelor version of it with instant dried seaweed, the way my father taught me.