Eat Tofu When You Get Out of Jail

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Author: tess
Date: 4-14-10
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Just when you thought Korean dramas were the biggest waste of your time, a little nugget of cultural idiosyncrasy presents itself and you learn something.

I was watching Moraeshigae (Sandglass) with my parents the other day, and there was a curious scene. The show follows the lives of two good friends, whose paths in life diverge. Tae Soo, one of the friends, is eagerly approaching the prison that houses his friend, Woo Suk, the day that he is to be released from jail. As he approaches the prison, he sees Woo Suk emerging and joyfully reuniting with and then being taken away by his ggangpae (gangster) crew. Tae Soo stops in his tracks and turns around before Woo Suk sees him. (This is because Tae Soo is good, Woo Suk is bad and is generally a very long story, but this is besides the point).  

Tae Soo was carrying something on this way to visit his friend – something block-like in a semi-transparent plastic bag. What do you think that was? That’s right – dooboo, what else? Now if my Appa hadn’t pointed that out to me, I doubt I would have noticed. And of course my next question was, why tofu?

A poll of several Korean people yielded a few results – some didn’t quite know why, but that it was just an old custom. Some had this explanation: in the old days, it was the only cheap, nutritious source of protein. And prison, presumably, wasn’t cushy – these people were in need of immediate nutrition, and it was certainly an inexpensive source of this. Now Google turns up a Yahoo Answers post which in turns cites several sources, some of which also cite nutrition, and others that see symbolism in the whiteness of tofu. In particular, a Slant Magazine writer has this take on another jail-tofu scene in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance: "Leaving prison, Geum-ja is confronted with a plate of lily-white tofu—a symbol of a new life without crime." Now I haven’t seen the movie, but it seems that this interpretation may be related to this movie in particular, as there is another scene at the end of the movie where the Geum-ja character then eats the tofu.

And just to get even a little more abstract, there’s a book called Dooboo and in the synopsis of the book, this explanation is given: "A life behind the bars is said to be ‘eating boiled beans.’ A tofu has been released from beans but can never return to beans. Thus a feeding a tofu might mean a wish that the person would never go back to prison." To which all I can say is "Wow." So for now, I’m inclined to say it was protein related. And in the meantime, here are a few favorite tofu (dooboo or dubu) recipes.

Readers, chime in with your favorite tofu dishes...

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