Growing up, seaweed soup was a part of my life. It is the soup that I ate on my birthday, as it is "birthday soup" and on your birthday you hope that someone cooks you some of this soup. Of course Mom did without fail, year after year for my birthday and for birthdays of Brothers and Dad. At least five times a year it appeared at my house, and usually more often than that.
I write about this soup rather in a lukewarm fashion, because for me, for a long long time, this soup is not my favorite. In Korean, seaweed is "mee yuk" and the soup is "mee yuk gook." I continually called it "mee yucky gook" as I did not like it and it was something I was more or less forced to eat a few times a year. I didn't like the flavor, or the texture or the fact that someone told me that I HAD to eat it on my birthday. WHY?
In my adult life, again, it was not a soup that was one of my favorites. But when Sister-in-law had her first baby, I was watching my then almost mother in law (engaged to, but not yet married to her son) make this soup and I casually mentioned that I didn't like it. In fact, I may have even called it "yucky" to her face. She gave me one of those looks that only a mother-in-law can give you, which was somewhat of a "Oh really? We'll see about that!" sort of looks, and just quietly said, "Watch your sister in law eat this. She knows what is good for her." Because, aside from being birthday soup, Seaweed soup is Korean confinement soup. Confinement in Korean culture, after childbirth, traditionally is more than thirty days of bedrest, no bathing, no heavy lifting, and lots and lots and lots of seaweed soup. It has iodine in it, so it helps shrink the uterus and some other magical deep sea ingredient helps new mothers produce lots and lots of milk. It is the stuff of legend, this Seaweed soup, in its power to transform the body of a new post partum mom. Sure enough, Sister-in-law obediently ate the soup, every single last bit of the seaweed and told her mom it tasted good. I later whispered to her, "Do you really like that stuff?" to which she responded, "Yes." I sighed because I knew what was coming in my future.
Daughter #1 was born in Hong Kong, at Queen Mary Hospital, an excellent public hospital. What this meant was, without any maternity coverage, I could have my baby - prenatal care and all for about $120 USD. That's right folks, $120. I didn't have any fabulous luxuries like a private room as I was in a ward room with about 25 other women, and I didn't have great food as I was served really strange and unappetizing Hong Kong Chinese postpartum food, but it was only $120. But I think that this less than appealing food was a blessing in disguise, because right after the baby was born, Mom showed up at the hospital during visiting hours. She had a bag full of food and I was STARVING. RAVENOUS. I had been in labor for 36 hours without pain intervention and had a baby and couldn't find anything to eat, so she was the most beautiful sight my eyes could behold.. What she pulled out of that big bag of food was a huge container of piping hot seaweed soup and a big bowl of rice. There was a bit of kimchee as well, and I looked at her and said, "THIS IS WHAT YOU BROUGHT ME?" and she said, "You have to eat it. It's for you and the baby. Now, EAT IT." When you're starving, and you've got a table food of food in front of you, you can't really be choosy, so I ate it. I ate the whole huge container. The thing was, due to my complete mode of starvation, the soup was absolutely delicious and I just couldn't stop eating it. Every last bit of seaweed was eaten, every last drop was drunk.
Mom and Husband in one combination came for two of my meals bringing me the seaweed soup. I stayed in the hospital for 3 days (standard in HK) and I continued to eat the seaweed soup. When I was discharged, I kept on thinking of all the other things I would eat once we got back to our home, only to find upon my arrival at my house more of the soup. I learned that Mom and Husband had made the unilateral decision that I would consume this soup for as many meals as they could force me to eat, and as I was also confined to the house (per Korean tradition) I couldn't go and buy what I wanted eat. I was at the mercy of Husband and Mom. They eventually relented and allowed me to have other things like a muffin, or some pizza as long as it was consumed with the soup. Every day. Every single day.
Finally a week before Mom was to leave, Grandma arrived from Korea to view the child from her grandchild. After oooh-ing and aaaah-ing over Daughter, she peered at me from over her glasses and said, "I've bought you some seaweed. From Korea. The best. The kind that nursing moms need to eat. And you need to eat it. All of it, every day until you can no longer eat it anymore." I responded, "I'm done! I can't eat it anymore!" and then she looked at me from over her glasses and intoned, "This soup makes your breast milk so wonderful and helps you look so beautiful, why would you deny both your child and yourself something so magnificent?" I sighed and just hung my head. There was no getting around it.
There were a few phone calls from the US, from Mom-in-law who asked Husband worriedly, "Is she eating the seaweed soup?" to which he responded, "Yes, but she doesn't like it." I moaned and groaned about who was going to make it for me when Mom left, and then Mom pulled me aside and said, "I will teach you how to make it." Husband said, "If you make it, I will eat it with you; as many days as you eat it, I will eat it too." I looked at him and said, "REALLY?" He looked at me straight and said, "I promise. If you serve it every single day for the number of days you are breastfeeding, I will eat it with you every single day." So I did. I ate that soup at least once a day for 393 days, until the day I finally weaned my daughter. Husband ate it with me all of those days, minus the ones when he was traveling on business, but he did uphold his promise.
You may wonder why someone who hates a soup this much could stand to eat so much of it? The thing is, I think it really works! I watched my body produce the food that went into Daughter's body and she grew and thrived on it. And my body shrank after my pregnancy at a strangely remarkable speed, and I wonder if after all, it wasn't just the enormous quantity of the soup I ate. Every time I settled down to breastfeed my daughter, I would look at her enjoying her food so much and I would understand at that moment, the amazing gift that God had given me in her and in my ability to provide nourishment for her. Every time I breastfed, I would remember that I wanted to be as healthy as possible so I would eat more soup. 393 days of it.
Now I must explain, this is currently the absolute favorite soup of Children. Son and Daughters all love it to pieces. They love the seaweed, the broth and eating it with a hot bowl of rice is one of their favorite meals. The irony is not lost on me as a soup that I can barely stand is the one that Family adores. I end up making it fairly often for that reason. My version is a strict beef broth version, and there are lots of other versions out there using mussels, dried shrimp, chicken stock, anchovy stock, but I like and will only eat the beef stock. This is the way Mom taught me and it is the way I will continue to make it. Hopefully when Daughters have their own babies, I will be around to force this soup on them as well.
(A Note: This version is much less seaweed-y than the one I ate postpartum so those who are postpartum may consider adding an additional 1/2 cup or 30 grams of seaweed. )
Seaweed Soup 미역국
Makes a large pot - enough for 12 people, so make it all and freeze half
2 1/2 gallons of water
3/4 lb to 1 lb of beef brisket (if you like it meatier go for the 1 lb of brisket)
1 large onion, peeld
10 cloves of garlic
2 1/2 cups of dried seaweed, or about 90 grams (see photos for more details)
3 tablespoons good sesame oil
2 tablespoons soup soy sauce 국간장 (if you can get it - otherwise you can substitute regular soy sauce or don't use it at all)
Salt to taste
Preparing the seaweed
Depending on the type of seaweed you get, the preparation can be kind of different. I love this one here because it comes already broken into small pieces, so there is nothing much to do except measure and put it into water to allow it to become flexible again. (This is wakame, which I've even seen at Whole Foods.)
This is another form, and you'll notice that the seaweed is in long pieces and so it needs to be broken while it is dry, and after it has softened in the water, you'll also need to cut and trim it into bite sized pieces.
Measure out your seaweed, and then put in a bowl with lots of water to cover it. The seaweed with begin to expand, soften and become much more voluminous as it soaks up the water.
After 30 minutes, drain the seaweed and give it a rinse. There is often some sand or some other sediment so giving it a rinse is a good idea. (The ones I've pictured above have less of an issue with this, but the deep sea ones have more things to rinse out.) Trim into bite sized pieces if necessary then allow it to drain and set aside.
Preparing the stock
Put beef brisket in a large bowl. Cover completely with cold water. Set aside for at least 45 minutes, so that you can drain all the blood. Doing this step helps create a much cleaner broth without the scum that you have to skim off.
In a large stock pot, add 2 1/2 gallons of water. Bring water to a boil. To the boiling water add onion, garlic cloves and beef brisket. Bring to a boil again, then reduce heat to medium, cover and allow to simmer for at least one hour.
At the end of the hour, take a chopstick and poke it into the center of one of the brisket pieces. The chopstick should go easily in as the beef is tender. If it is hard to poke the chopstick, cook for an additional 15 minutes, until beef is tender.
Remove beef, onions and garlic from soup stock. Set soup stock aside, and when the beef is cool, shred into bite sized pieces.
Preparing the soup
You will need another large stock pot or you can remove pour the broth into a holding container until needed. Heat pot over medium heat and then add sesame oil. Add drained seaweed. There should be a satisfying sizzle when you add the seaweed. Saute the seaweed for a minute and then add soy sauce (optional) or a teaspoon of salt. Continue cooking for another minute and then pour the soup stock over the seaweed. Add beef pieces and bring to a boil. Check seasonings and adjust as necessary. Serve.
(A Note: Salt does take a bit of time to melt, so make sure you allow for salt to dissolve before you taste and add additional salt. Also, as each set of seaweed is different, it is difficult for me to say how much salt is needed, which is why you need to adjust your seasonings accordingly.)
Now, who is ready to eat this?