[Dramas and food] When food equals affection
Long before my K-drama days began, I had this theory that it was essential for films and TV shows to have their characters eating at some point in the story. In my mind, it gave the story an authenticity and warmth that was otherwise missing. Whether that’s true or not (the theory remains unproven), K-dramas are a genre where there’s certainly no lack of food. Cooking, eating, food shopping, restauranting, delivering food, gifting side dishes, craving food, binging food, and more — I can’t think of a drama that doesn’t have a character consuming cup ramen or banana milk at the very least.
In some K-dramas (like the Let’s Eat series), food is the story, but in most dramas, food just acts as tool to help tell the story better. Food can be used to embellish a moment or an emotional state, like the feisty (and usually upset) heroine sitting in front of a bowl of bibimbap in dramas like Full House and My Name is Kim Sam Soon. Food can also help illustrate the bonding between characters as they gather over food, whether it’s a bowl of udon like in Romance is a Bonus Book, or the fateful soju drink-a-thon. But the thing I really love about food in K-dramas is that it’s also a way of displaying affection.
Since food is such an ordinary thing, and a daily event in our lives (hopefully!), there’s something special about when it is used to express emotions and affection towards another person. Because I’ve thought about it a little too much, there seems to be three main ways that food shows affection in K-dramas: gifting, sharing, and preparing. Sometimes they all roll into one, but often they’re separate and distinguishable from each other.
Gifting is the most obvious way to use food to show affection. Dramas are full of cake-box gifting, cold bottled beverage delivering, and everything in between. I love how a simple vending machine energy drink can mean everything from “Hello, please notice me and my mega crush on you!” to “I see you’re troubled/upset/lonely — let’s have a chat about it.”
The idea of sharing food can take a lot of different forms in K-dramas as well. From meals shared in smoky restaurants or at the outside picnic tables of the neighborhood convenience store, sharing a meal is one of the primary ways characters (and real people!) bond.
But there’s an even more literal kind of food sharing that goes beyond having a meal together. It’s not so much the “Here, have half my kimbap roll” sentiment as it is using food to show care or concern for another person. Back when I was a K-drama novice, I remember being so touched by the way characters would serve each other food, putting choice pieces of fish, radish, kimchi, on another person’s bowl of rice. I learned pretty fast that this was a lovely display of affection. Most often, it’s a bit of a maternal behavior, but I’ve noticed everyone from bosses to oppas doing this, and even children doing it for their parents.
Gifting and sharing food can be useful as props and actions to reveal affections between characters, but neither of them beat the ultimate way that food shows affections in dramas: by preparing food for another.
In K-dramas, preparing food for someone is more than being polite or hospitable. In dramaland it means love. Preparing food for someone is rarely seen as something other than an act of care, concern, and affection.
How many K-drama mothers have we met that painstakingly prepare (and sometimes deliver and fridge-stock) truckloads of banchan, or just kimchi, for their child who’s living out of the house? For lovers, or even the occasional “some” couple, there’s the wonderful homemade porridge for a swift recovery from a fever. Or perhaps a broken leg, broken heart, or even amnesia. Powerful stuff, that porridge.
Home-cooked meals are always full of the heart and intention of the person preparing them. In the recent drama That Psychometric Guy, the heroine’s aunt brings homemade lunch boxes to the police station, and they are coveted by everyone there. Whether it’s a delivered lunch box, or a breakfast sweetly prepared and left under a food net, food prepared for another person always has some important emotion behind it.
One of my favorite ways that K-dramas dig into this even more is with the attention paid to a mother’s cooking. Many a lonely heroine comes to mind, and whether she is missing her mother or not, a meal that reminds her of her mother’s cooking is the next best thing to actually having it. For heroines that are able to go home and actually have their mother’s cooking (whether by bus, taxi, or time warp, like in Go Back Spouses), they are both comforted and recharged.
Classic drama I’m Sorry, I Love You topped the chart with its depiction of the power of a mom-cooked meal. In the drama, though the hero (So Ji-sub) never has time to reveal himself to his mother, he’s able to ask her to make him some ramen. It’s a rip-your-heart-out scene, even for a melodrama, where he sobs over this bowl, too overcome to even eat. I love how strongly this scene shows the power of preparing food for someone. Something as banal as a bowl of instant ramen can hold someone’s entire heart ransom.
Storytelling done well makes us think about life differently, or draws attention to things in our everyday lives that might have been passing us by unnoticed. For me, not only has my taste for certain foods been impacted by years of dramas, but so has the notice I give to food. While the concept of food as a way to show affection had been present in my own life, but I don’t think I fully appreciated or recognized it. Paying attention to it in stories brought it into better focus.
While drama food is probably most responsible for introducing international viewers to a new cuisine, and then making us crave certain foods uncontrollably (hello, fridge filled with kkakdugi) — I also love that food in dramas can touch our hearts. From the warmth of a home-cooked meal, to food that’s prepared, served, or handed to you with love, K-dramas shed a lovely light on how we use food to show affection.
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