Tofu and Prison in Kdramas

tofu scene, Lady vengeance (2005)

We had guests this weekend. Normally when friends come over we go sight seeing and my husband is busy planning which pork or beef BBQ restaurant to take the guests to. But this time, as one friend is a strict vegetarian, we knew from past experience that eating out was going to be a problem. Since we moved to this area though, I’ve found a great tofu stall in the local market. The tofu is made on the premises every day and so I can buy tofu so fresh it’s often still warm – Fried tofu with soy sauce, chili, and sesame oil. Fabulous. Speaking of tofu, I’ve noticed in Kdramas that tofu is often given to people when they come out of prison and I wanted to find out why.

Tofu and prison

For example, in episode one of the SBS drama Dream, 2009, (below) when Lee Jang-suk (Kim Bum, Boys Before Flowers) is released from a juvenile detention centre there’s an ajumma sitting at the entrance to the facility selling tofu. Other families in the background are holding bags of tofu to give to their loved ones when they come out. Nobody is waiting for Jang-suk,  so he goes over to the tofu lady himself.

adjumma selling tofu outside a juvenile detention centre, Dream (2009)

I found some explanations on the Japanese website wowkorea. – Giving tofu is symbolic because it is white and also,  it’s made from soy beans which can’t be changed back into beans once they have been made into tofu. So this represents starting a new life and not reverting back to old ways.

Another reason for giving tofu is more practical.  When Korea was a poor country, prison inmates didn’t get very nutritious food. There was no meat and little protein available, so families wanted to give their loved ones something nutritious when they came out of prison and so gave  them tofu.

These days prison inmates are given rice mixed with wheat and barley and are allowed to buy kimchi and meat with their own money. So giving tofu is not actually necessary any more. But the tradition lives on and is shown clearly in the tofu scene in the film Lady Vengeance (by Old Boy director Park Chan-wook). Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae) is given a plate of tofu when she comes out of prison after serving 13 years. The white of the tofu symbolizes a new start – she has served her time and can begin a new life free from sin. But, in the film, she throws the tofu on the ground signaling trouble ahead.

Lee Young-ae as Geum-ja in Lady Vengeance (2005)


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