Saturday, March 08, 2014

Tofu after Prison

Dear Korean,

I never understood why people always give tofu to those who get out of jail. I know it's supposed to be a "out with the old, in with the new" type of mentality, but why tofu? 


For those who are not aware: this is true. It is a Korean custom for someone who is just leaving the prison to have a bite of tofu upon exit.

Example of an ex-con, who just finished his sentence, eating tofu.
Pictured is Kim Tae-chon [김태촌], a notorious leader of a crime syndicate.

Why tofu? There is no single accepted explanation for this custom. The custom itself is not very old, as the recorded reference to the custom began appearing around early 20th century. Common theories are:
  • Tofu is pearly white.  By eating something white, which symbolizes purity and innocence, the convict resolves to live a crime-free life going forward.
  • Tofu is cheap and nutritious.  During the Japanese occupation of Korea--when this custom appeared--the prison conditions were beyond terrible. In addition to undergoing frequent and brutal torture, prisoners were often malnourished. As tofu is one of the cheapest source of protein, someone who just got out of prison could receive an emergency injection of nutrition in the form of tofu.
  • Tofu is made of beans.  Also during the Japanese occupation of Korea, the standard prison food was rice and beans. Although rice would be the preferred meal, Imperial Japan's colonial administration liberally mixed in cheap beans into the rice, as it was in no mood to spend too much money on prisoners. Although this practice ended in 1986, Koreans use the idiom "eating rice and beans" as a euphemism for going to prison. In her essay titled Tofu [두부], famed novelist Park Wan-seo [박완서] wrote that eating tofu represents a transformation. As tofu is the liberated spirit of beans, one also wishes one's criminal spirit is likewise transformed.
Personally, the Korean thinks the second theory is the most plausible, but that is no more than bare speculation. 

Completely apropos of nothing: freshly made tofu is quite possibly the most delicious food in the world. If you have not had it, you are missing out. It is pleasantly warm, as smooth as pudding and still retains the savory bean flavor. If you are ever traveling in Korea, China or Japan, do everything you can to try a freshly made tofu.

Got a question or comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. Not sure why but I was under the impression (after watching too many Kdramas) that you suppose to eat tofu so you don't go back to jail. It is almost like a superstition of some sort or a good luck charm.

    It would be nice to know where exactly and how this tradition originated. Some claim it has something to do with hunger strikes during the Japanese occupation. When the person is severely malnourished, he has to eat something soft and chewy. Why not chuk though, that would be better for them?

    Tofu is inexpensive yet nutritious, easy to buy, and it is available year-round. It is the easiest thing to bring to a person, plus it is not as common as kimpap or some desert. But still, many other things could be just as nutritious and cheap as tofu. Isn't there any research into traditions and customs?

  2. . . . as seen in the great opening scene of Park Chan-wook's 친절한 금자씨 (Sympathy for Lady Vengence):


Comments are not available on posts older than 60 days.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...