Monday, December 08, 2008

My Favorite Korean Soup: Miyeok Guk

I don't know what's wrong with me lately, but I continuously crave miyeok guk (미역국), which translates to "seaweed soup" (미역 = seaweed, 국 = soup). (Also spelled miyuk-guk, meeyuk-guk, meyeok-guk, etc.)

Miyeok is a specific type of seaweed- you can't just go to the beach and throw the stuff you find into a pot. Trust me- the kelp that you need doesn't even grow in this part of the world (I'm assuming you live in my part of the world, a.k.a. California).

Miyeok is more commonly known by its Japanese name, wakame. When freshly harvested, it's plump and green and slippery (I know, sounds so appetizing! Yum!) but I actually prefer the dried version. Miyeok is dried out to crispy little shards that expand so much during cooking that it's almost unbelievable. It's like it was freeze-dried.

The photo below shows miyeok dried in long strips. It turns from green to black while it dries and really shrivels into just a wee percentage of its original size. Rather than buy these tall, bulky packages, I prefer the smaller bags that have little pieces of miyeok. If you want to make other dishes that require long strands, you need the bulky package. For soup, you need to break it up anyways, so might as well buy a package of pre-broken miyeok. Easier to store, too.

There's a tradition in Korea that miyeok guk is consumed on one's birthday. Why, I don't know. But it's supposed to bring good luck and fortune in your next year of life. I don't really care about the mythology behind it; I just love the flavor of it and will take it whenever I can!

Miyeok is also supposed to be very good for the health. My mother told me that in Korea, it's fed to women who have given birth. It's supposed to quickly nourish and help bring women back to health. Like so many Korean traditions, I doubted its truth. But then my best friend, Wikipedia, told me that miyeok is quite good for the health. It has fucoxanthin, which doesn't sound good, but is. So even more reason for me to consume it!

I'm sure every region, every district, every family has their own special miyeok guk recipe. I'm a completely shameless carnivore, but I actually do not like meat in this soup. I really don't like the sea creatures that some people insist on adding- mussels, for instance, are quite popular. Ew.

My (well, my mother's) recipe for miyeok-guk is the simplest thing that I make (besides rice, of course):

- Water
- Chopped garlic (I chop it fine, my mother likes to slice it)
- Fish sauce
- Garlic salt (everyone in my family is oddly addicted to garlic salt. We're Korean, we can't help the love of garlic!)
- Miyeok

I tend to add soy sauce if the soup is fishy enough (therefore not needing any additional fish sauce) but still too bland, while my mom's the big fan of garlic salt. I've been somewhat converted to the garlic salt method, since I do like the additional garlic zing.

All the ingredients are thrown into a pot except the miyeok and brought to boil. The miyeok is sprinkled in (it will expand to what seems like 50 times its original size, so just a little bit!) and it blooms in seconds.

Once the miyeok is heated through (um, all of a minute, perhaps a minute and a half) the soup is done.

The longer the soup is boiled, the less you'll taste the garlic, and the softer the pieces of garlic will be. I like the soup boiled as little as possible but long enough to be tongue-searingly hot.

The soup has a wonderful briny flavor that somehow tastes just like I imagine a cartoon version of the ocean would taste. I like the dried miyeok better because it's a little chewy and not slimy. Fresh (or fresher, I should say) miyeok is too soft and slimy for my taste, and doesn't really require much chewing. Good for the senior-citizen generation, I suppose, but not me.

I like it best with rice and kimchi. That's it, nothing else needed.

I've had this soup twice (perhaps three times) in the past 5 days and I still want it. Unfortunately, I am in the process of moving and my current whereabouts do not have the ingredients needed (really, just the miyeok). I think I packed too hastily...