A seaweed soup.
A seaweed soup.
Image: Yang Zhao

Like most children growing up in China during the 1990s, I practised the piano every night after dinner, so did my friends. We lived near one another, went to the same schools, some of us were even neighbours in the same buildings. Every night at around the same time, you’d hear a symphony of broken piano or violin sounds, coupled with children crying, parents scolding their children at practice, and faint smell of dinners different homes had cooked that night.  There were plenty of stories about “Tiger parents” with big dreams for their children in these six-storey flats.

I attended piano lessons every week at a university across the highway from where I lived. A young music professor side-gigged as a piano teacher for many of us. He was very strict with the starting times of his lessons, lateness was punishable. My mother would remind me on the morning of lesson day to practice for 40 minutes and to pack my notes before she came home to take me to my lesson.

One day, I found my grandmother in the kitchen cooking a seaweed soup. I was fascinated. Grandma asked if I wanted to help her soak the dried seaweed in water, so I did. I proceeded to cook with grandma instead of doing as my mother had asked. Mesmerised in the kitchen, I had forgotten about my piano lesson altogether.

My mother came home, and immediately started screaming, “Is this what you want to do? Cook?!”, as if the act of cooking was somehow beneath contempt. A common thing with mothers in those days was to get as far away from the kitchen as possible. But grandma said: “There’s nothing wrong with knowing how to cook and feed yourself, to know how to look after yourself.” Grandma’s response affirmed my place in the kitchen for many years to come.

I recently learnt that not all seaweed soups are created equal, and the Korean version is so beautifully layered in flavour. The ancients observed that whales consumed seaweed post birth, so the humans followed suit, and it became a tradition to eat seaweed soup post birth and on birthdays. Science has confirmed that seaweed soup is high in vitamins A, C, E and K, which are not only important nutrients that can assist to improve gut health, but also help to release excessive blood clots post-partum.

Korean soup soy sauce.
Korean soup soy sauce.
Image: Yang Zhao

I adapted this recipe from a Cape Town-based, brought up in Kenya, Korean-born artist, YunYoung Ahn. YunYoung graciously weaves food politics with a deep sense of spirituality in her art practice. She told me about the whales and their post-partum soup, which was so moving, because we are by nature, intelligent and wise by design.

Ingredients: serves 4-6

  • 40g Miyeok- Korean for seaweed or Wakame if it’s Japanese product, soaked for 20 min, then roughly chopped
  • ½ red or white onion, finely chopped, I find red onions to be more flavourful
  • 4 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 300g beef brisket, cut into 3cm cubes; if vegetarian, use six medium-sized shiitake mushrooms, chopped and stir-fried with minced garlic, set aside
  • 2 TSP fish sauce
  • 2 TSP sesame oil
  • Salt to season
  • Korean soup soy sauce to season

Method:

  1. Bring water to boil, add onion, garlic and seaweed, boil for 20 minutes
  2. Add beef or mushroom, fish sauce, bring to boil then reduce to medium heat and cook for 40 min
  3. Add salt and sesame oil, season to taste, if seaweed and brisket melt in your mouth then it is ready. Et Voila!
  4. Serve and enjoy as a starter, a side, or warm savoury drink as you would consume bone broth throughout the day. Or the Korean way, with a bowl of steaming hot short grain rice, and a side of kimchi.
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