Why do people eat tofu when they come out of prison in Korea?

In Korean dramas, characters are always given tofu when they are released from prison. But why is this?

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Scene from the Korean psychological thriller Lady Vengeance (2005)

Tofu is thought to have been introduced to Korea around the end of the Goryeo period (918-1392) It was used in royal cuisine but ordinary families made tofu at home too. The historical drama Flower in Prison (MBC 2016) is set in a 16th century Joseon prison during the reign of King Myeongjong. And here in the drama these characters are given tofu after they do their time.

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Flower in Prison (MBC 2016) 

But I can’t say for sure that the tradition really does go back to the Joseon period. There’s quite a bit of info about tofu and prison in the 20th century though. And there are symbolic and practical reasons for giving tofu to people when they come out of prison. First of all a practical reason …

MALNUTRITION

The practical reason for giving tofu comes from the lack of nutrition in prison food. According to this prison guard , during the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945) prisoners were not fed very well – especially patriots rebelling against the colonists. So when they came out of prison they were suffering from malnutrition. They were hungry but couldn’t eat too much because they wouldn’t be able to digest a lot of food straight away. So they were given tofu because it is full of protein and nutrition and is soft on the tummy and easy to digest.

SOYBEANS AS A EUPHEMISM FOR BEING IN PRISON

Do you want to eat rice with beans? 

After the colonial period beans were added to rice in Korean prisons to make the food more nutritious. (Beans and barley were also cheaper than rice especially during rice shortages.) And so in Korea, rice cooked with beans became associated with prison.

The term ‘do you want to eat rice with beans?‘  (콩밥 먹고 십어? kongbap meok go ship-o?) sounds quite inviting. Yes, please.  But actually this phrase means ‘do you want to go to prison?’ Oh, in that case, no thank you.

Let’s compare this phrase in English. In British English ‘doing porridge‘ means doing time in prison since porridge (made with oats) was part of the staple prison diet. (It has continued to be served as a hot breakfast in prisons but this tradition has died out. These days the British prison menu has to reflect the variety of tastes and religions of the inmates!)

But if you say ‘eating porridge‘ in Korean, (식은 죽 먹기 shigun chuk meokgi) it means that something is easy to do. (It’s ‘a piece of cake‘)  It’s as easy as eating porridge. Because rice porridge is easy to digest – that’s why rice porridge is a popular meal for people to eat when they are sick. My sister in law brought me some lovely kimchi and octopus rice porridge when I was sick.

All About Eve, MBC, 2000, In Soo is given tofu as he leaves the prison

TURNING OVER A NEW LEAF

Hang on then. So even though rice porridge is easy on the tummy there are no family members waiting with bowls of rice gruel for their loved ones when they come out of prison. Maybe there are more symbolic reasons why tofu is given.

According to this Korean food columnist  tofu is very hard to make and so the tofu never has the exact same flavour. It’s different every time that it’s made. And so eating tofu after prison symbolises not repeating a bad deed. In other words turning over a new leaf.

Another theory is that once soybeans have been made into tofu the beans can’t be changed back into beans again. So tofu represents starting a new life and not reverting back to old ways which will send you back to prison where you’ll have to eat bean rice.

In the scene above from one of my favourite dramas All About Eve (MBC, 2000) gangster In Soo comes out of prison and is met by his subordinates from his gang who greet him with tofu. In this case the tofu seems to represent a kind of good luck charm wishing that he doesn’t get caught again!

THESE DAYS

These days prison inmates in Korea are still given rice mixed with beans and barley etc but they are also allowed to buy kimchi and meat with their own money. So giving tofu is not actually necessary any more. But the tradition lives on as a symbolic gesture.

In the past, cooked barley was a cheaper replacement for white rice. If a housewife in a Korean novel from the past is cooking barley instead of rice, you’ll know that the family is poor. But in modern times attitudes have changed and healthy food restaurants will actually offer rice with beans or barley. So they are not associated with poverty anymore but rather with healthy living.

TOFU USED SYMBOLICALLY IN FILM & DRAMA

In episode one of the SBS drama Dream, 2009, Lee Jang-suk (Kim Bum from Boys Before Flowers) is released from a juvenile detention centre, there is no one waiting for him. Other families are holding bags of tofu to give to their loved ones when they come out of the prison. But nobody is waiting for Jang-suk. So he goes over to a lady selling tofu on the side of the street to buy tofu for himself. This scene emphasises how alone he is – he doesn’t even have anyone to bring him tofu.

And tofu can be used as a premonition by showing a character’s state of mind. Here 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. But she throws the tofu on the ground suggesting that she is not interested in ‘rehabilitation’….

 

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

 

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