I am American and watch a fair amount of subtitled Korean movies and TV shows. In these shows, there is a big deal made about having seaweed soup on your birthday. What is this about, and also, what does seaweed soup taste like? Do you like it?
You're American? The Korean is American too! What a coincidence.
(Next time, just say you're white. The Korean will let it slide this one time.)
Eating seaweed sounds terrible to most non-Asians, because the image conjured up is the seaweed washed up on the beach, ruining the fun of a good swim. But let the Korean remind you that the image is no worse than yogurt (you toss the milk gone bad, not mix with fruit) or escargot (if you put salt to season it, would it shrivel up and die?)
Koreans generally eat three types of seaweed: miyeok (brown laver), gim (sloke), and parae (green laver). They are cooked differently. Gim is just like Japanese nori, i.e. the seaweed that wraps sushi rolls. Gim is flattened, dried, and roasted with sesame oil and salt. When done, it looks like a thin black sheet of paper. It is then cut into size, and eaten with rice. It makes a surprisingly good beer snack. Alternatively, gim can be eaten like fresh salad, tossed with soy sauce and sesame oil. Parae is less commonly eaten, and more of a local food. Usually it is cooked similarly to gim, but parae tends to have a thicker texture.
Miyeok is the only type that is made into soup, so the "seaweed soup" is really miyeokguk. (Guk means soup.) Miyeok can also be prepared like fresh salad like any other edible seaweed. In addition, miyeok can be prepared into either hot or cold soup. But the birthday soup, as it were, is the hot one. The cold soup is called miyeok-naengguk. The picture is what a typical miyeokguk looks like.
So why eat this particular thing on your birthday? It's really because seaweed soup is traditionally eaten by women after childbirth. Korean women who give birth traditionally eats seaweed soup for about three weeks straight.
Brown laver is particularly good for women who just gave birth because it has very rich in iron and iodine. Iron is what gives blood its red color. It's an essential ingredient for producing blood, something that a woman loses a lot during childbirth. (Which sounds like a load of fun.) Iodine is necessary to kick-start the production of hormones, which in turn produces breastmilk for the newborn. The broth is usually made out of beef or fish, which helps replace calcium and protein.
So, because it is associated with birth, seaweed soup is the thing to have on your birthday. It's a big deal because hey, wouldn't it be a big deal if you missed out on a birthday cake on your birthday?
What does it taste like? Soup is mostly about broth, and seaweed soup can be made out of just about any broth you can think of. (Including canned chicken broth!) The most common broth would be anchovy or beef, but any type of fish or shellfish generally works. Seaweed doesn't really add to the flavor of the broth. Usually minced garlic, soy sauce, and a dash of sesame oil is added to the broth. The texture of miyeok is somewhat like steamed cabbage, but less fiber-y. Wikipedia claims that because of the iodine content, miyeok tastes somewhat like olives, but the Korean loves both seaweed soup and olives and he never noticed the similarity.
Got a question or comment for the Korean? Email away at firstname.lastname@example.org.