There are quite a lot of prison scenes in Korean dramas, aren’t there? And the characters are always given tofu when they are released. (BTW This is not just in dramas – it happens in ‘real life’ too.)
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 of the prison. But nobody is waiting for Jang-suk. So he goes over to the tofu lady himself. This scene emphasises how alone he is – he doesn’t even have anyone to bring him tofu.
Dream, SBS, 2009. Lee Jang-suk comes out of a juvenile detention centre
All About Eve, MBC, 2000, In Soo is given tofu as he leaves the prison
I found some explanations on the Japanese website wowkorea. – First of all, giving tofu is symbolic because of its colour – white, symbolising purity. Secondly, 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.
The meaning behind tofu 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 …. this signals big trouble ahead.
Lee Young-ae as Geum-ja in Lady Vengeance (2005)