While I haven’t yet had the good fortune of visiting South Korea, I will shamefacedly admit that much of my knowledge of Korean food has come from watching K-dramas. Usually, these lessons in Korean food appreciation come from watching K-drama characters simply eat and drink in various bars and restaurants around Seoul. But with Netflix’s new series, Itaewon Class, the lessons on food go a bit deeper than that.
For those who have been bingeing on K-dramas since the quarantine, Itaewon Class has become one of the most talked about these days. While it doesn’t boast the rom-com kilig of Crash Landing on You or the zombie appeal of Kingdom, what it does have in spades is a compelling underdog-slash-revenge story, one quite remarkable hero, and two leading ladies who aren’t as goody-two-shoes as you’d expect. The David vs. Goliath plotline pits the aforementioned hero, high school dropout and ex-convict Park Saeroyi (played by Park Seo-jun), against Chairman Jang Dae-hee of Jangga Company, only the biggest food and restaurant group in Korea.
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There’s something to be said about how food and booze—in this case, soju and soft tofu stew—are used to highlight the plight and progression of our hero, expressing in taste and flavor what the introverted Park Saeroyi cannot express himself. Woven throughout Itaewon Class’s 16-episode arc are appearances of soft tofu stew and soju that bring the story to its satisfying end. Be warned, spoilers ahead!
When soju turns bitter or sweet
Like any self-respecting K-drama, there’s a lot of soju consumed on Itaewon Class. Produced in those familiar green bottles, soju is distilled from fermented grain (usually rice, wheat, or barley), and popular throughout the country thanks to its wide availability and low price. I have to admit that I found my first taste of soju more than a decade ago sharply bitter, and frankly, undrinkable. But since then, I’ve come to appreciate it a lot more, and have found it to be pleasantly sweeter than that first bitter shot long ago. And it’s precisely that seesaw between soju’s bitter and sweet taste that dictates the progress of Saeroyi’s story.
In the premiere episode, a still teenage Saeroyi gets his first sip of soju from his single father. It’s a deeply emotional bonding moment as his father teaches his still minor son how to properly drink soju—how to hold the bottle, how to pour it, even how to taste it (when drinking with an older person, one turns his head to the side as a sign of respect). The whole thing, by the way, is a useful lesson on soju drinking etiquette. Saeroyi's father says, “Dads are supposed to teach their sons how to drink.” When he asks Saeroyi how the soju tastes, he answers that it’s sweet. His father laughs and says that means he had an impressive day today. Despite their setbacks, the pair sees the future as bright, the father is proud of his son, and all will be well, or so we think.
Unfortunately, the future turns out not to be so bright, as Saeroyi lands in jail and his father is killed in a hit-and-run. The next time Saeroyi drinks soju is in Episode 2 after he is released from prison three years later. He samples the soju and mutters to himself, “It’s bitter,” a grim reflection of his bleak future ahead.
DanBam, the pub Saeyori opens by Episode 3, also refers to the taste of soju. Translated as “honey night” or “sweet night,” the name reflects the search for that sweetness he lost when his life fell apart. In one scene, a drunken Saeroyi explains why he chose that name, “My life is bitter, too bitter…I want my bitter night and my life to be sweet.” In Episode 10, things still aren’t looking up for Saeroyi, as he visits his father’s grave, pours 2 glasses of soju, takes a sip, and says to himself, “It’s still bitter.”
But by the drama’s finale, the soju finally turns sweet. Saeroyi has taken over Jangga Company, he’s in love with his manager Jo Yi-seo, and finally, since his first sip of soju with his father more than 15 years ago, he answers his father’s question, “How does it taste?” with a big smile. The soju is sweet again.
The victory of the soft tofu stew
While the taste of soju in Itaewon Class acts as a barometer of sorts for what Saeroyi feels and yearns for, the success of Danbam Pub depends on how good is its soft tofu stew.
Known as soondubu jjigae, soft tofu stew is one among the many comforting stews or jjigae at the heart of Korean cooking. These stews are also considered typical pub fare, fortifying and warming, best enjoyed with multiple shots of soju, of course. Soft tofu stew starts with a broth made of dried anchovies and kelp, to which onions, garlic, kimchi, soft tofu (called soondubu), and a gochujang spice paste are added. Cooked in an earthenware pot and served still bubbling, the dish is usually accompanied by a bowl of white rice and various vegetable banchan or side dishes. Pork, beef, seafood, or other vegetables can also be added.
We first get a whiff of Saeroyi’s soft tofu stew (a recipe he learned from his father) in Episode 5 when he cooks it for his staff late at night after the pub closes. They’re immediately impressed by the taste, except that his manager Jo Yi-seo realizes that the soft tofu stew cooked by the pub’s cook Ma Hyun-yi isn’t quite up to par. For DanBam Pub to succeed, the soft tofu stew has to be really good. Thankfully, Hyun-yi eventually improves her cooking, and the now-famous soft tofu stew even helps her win The Best Pub TV competition against the chef from the rival Jangga Pub. When the soft tofu stew is good, there’s nothing that can stop DanBam.
In Episode 7, DanBam’s soft tofu stew is put to the test when Saeroyi’s arch enemy Chairman Jang comes to the pub to confront Saeroyi. While he is seen enjoying the dish immensely, close-ups of slurping included, he gloats to Saeroyi, “You can’t beat Jangga Company.” But Saeroyi confronts Jang, brazenly declaring, “You are my end goal,” then adding, “The only thing you can do for my late father is getting on your knees and paying for what you did. And I’ll make that happen.”
That’s exactly what Saeroyi does nine episodes later during the series’ dramatic finale. It’s a repeat of the earlier scene, with the now much diminished Chairman Jang tasting DanBam’s soft tofu stew once again. This time, Saeroyi himself cooks the stew and serves it, still bubbling in its pot. The chairman notices a “unique aftertaste” to the stew, with Saeroyi answering, “I give a lot of care to fermented soybean powder.” He then adds, “On a cold day, the warmth spreads throughout the body. Isn’t it good?” Yes, it is indeed good as Jang devours it all. But instead of gloating like in Episode 7, here the tables are turned. He begs Saeroyi to save his company and gets down on his knees. It’s Saeroyi’s sweet revenge, with his father’s humble soft tofu stew as the ultimate winner in this 16-episode epic battle.
Itaewon Class offers both engaging characters and plot twists and turns that make this K-drama a must watch. But there’s real pleasure too in watching the characters indulge in all that soju and soft tofu stew. As soon as we can all go out, I know I’ll be ordering a pot of soondubu jjigae with soju at a local Korean restaurant, as I hopefully plan for that long desired trip to Korea one day.