Apple TV+’s sprawling epic “Pachinko” recreates Korean history, in the kitchen and on the plate
The television adaptation of Pachinko, based on the international bestseller by Min Jin Lee, follows one family over the course of eight decades, from the rural community of Yeongdo in 1930s Busan to the fast-paced world of 1989 Tokyo. The story focuses on Sunja, played by three separate actresses over the course of the show, as she tries to survive the persecution of Koreans in Japan throughout the 20th century.
But beyond the specific family members at the core of Pachinko, food plays a central role in the story: the Busan fish markets, where Sunja helps her family’s boarders hawk seafood and where she meets the intimidating fish broker Hansu. The bowls of white rice, made and served with such care by Sunja’s mother on the night of her wedding, taken for granted by her grandson decades later. The kimchi Sunja makes with her mother, and then sells in the markets of Osaka. Food helps keep her family afloat, but it also signals love, power, and comfort.
To make those food scenes come to life, Pachinko prop master Ellen Freund, who has worked on shows like Mad Men and movies like A River Runs Through It, spent years researching, sourcing, and building menus for each scene, developing a methodical spreadsheet of each scene’s dishes and time-appropriate cookware. She pored over Korean prints from the Joseon dynasty, trying to capture the era’s kitchens and serving traditions. She worked closely with Soo Jin Kim at Seoul’s Food & Culture Academy to make sure every ingredient, cooking technique, and bowl of rice was true to what would have been available at that moment in history, for the family at the center of the story. Eater chatted with Freund to understand the story behind the food in Pachinko, from the page to the table.
Eater: What immediately struck you about Pachinko when you became familiar with the material?
Ellen Freund: The history — not just of the family. We had to move from the rural nature of the family, through the cities, through Busan, and then through to Japan. It has such history.
I understand that you worked with Soo Jin Kim at the Food & Culture Academy to help with the food scenes and props. How did you two get together and what did you learn about Korean food in the process?
I learned so much, from every ingredient to the growing seasons, to what poor people versus rich people ate, the way they would prepare foods, the way they would eat, how cooking vessels would differ, how the serving dishes would differ — it’s endless.
We took some of the actors out to learn to make a few different things: how to start a fire, how to cook the rice, how to cook vegetables, how to clean vegetables. We took them to the home of a woman who was a champion kimchi maker. We got to experience this incredible lesson from her and her husband, who taught us about starting the fire. And then we had a meal like no other I’ve ever had, something you couldn’t possibly get in a restaurant.
One of the challenges was trying to make sure that our food continued to look proper for the era. For instance, an Asian pear is now valued for its size. On Mad Men, we had the same problem: Apples in the ’60s do not look like apples today. So you really have to seek out those items and learn what they would have really looked like. When you’re making kimchi, did your head of cabbage really grow as big as what I can now purchase in the market? I didn’t think so. So we had to seek out different varieties of cabbage that would be a little smaller, or just really trim down the present day ones to make them look like they might have existed in 1930.
Can you give me a few more examples of specific things you couldn’t use in the early-20th-century scenes, versus the scenes that take place in the ’80s?
Well, we had a limited budget, so we went to many pottery villages to try and buy pottery that would look appropriate, but it really doesn’t look appropriate. It’s too shiny, or it’s too matte. It has too much texture to it because that’s popular now, or the shapes are a little weird. So I really tried to stick with older items, and I didn’t care if they were cracked because their dishes would be cracked. I would go into a store and find a stack of dishes, but everyone would say, “Oh no, that’s Joseon dynasty, that’s $100 a plate,” and, well, we can’t afford that. So we tried sandblasting dishes, we did so many things. But ultimately, I hope that the ones that ended up on the top layer were the ones that were the really old dishes.
I’d find rattan scoops for cleaning the rice, but some of them were decorative items — people hang them on their wall, so they’re either too big or too small. Finding one that really looks like you can use it was difficult. The shape of the metal pot that sits above the fire, we needed to use modern ones to get duplicates, because in the rice scene, they cut a hole in the bottom so the camera could look up through it. So to make that match, we had to use a modern one and it was difficult to find a modern one that satisfied the look. Rice bowls were another thing: There were many arguments among the food team about whether the characters could have brass, or if it was too expensive.
Talk to me about menu planning. Was there a specific list of dishes you had in mind, that you assigned to different scenes?
I went through and broke down every scene that had food in it, I made a list of the possible dishes, and my food team and I discussed what not only would be appropriate for the scene, but what could hold up well enough for a day of shooting. There’s some things you just can’t do; you’re risking the health of your actors. Because of the poverty level we were dealing with [in the plot], there wasn’t a lot of meat, there wasn’t a lot of fish. With the help of the food team, we created photos of what each of these dishes would look like, and then at that point I would discuss it with the directors and [writer] Soo Hugh. Then we would go through and take each one of those dishes and figure out what it was served in, what utensils were used. We then had to make sure we had the proper cooking utensils and cutting utensils and mixing bowls, all of the things that one might need to make these dishes.
There are so many fish markets and open-air markets throughout the show — how did you and set director Hamish Purdy build the markets to be true to the era? What research goes into creating a market?
Hamish and I wished that we had shot the 1930s-era fish market in Korea, but it ultimately just did not work with the schedule. We had to create that fish market where we meet Hansu, and it was a big deal — acquiring real fish, acquiring fake fish, setting it up every day, having to pull it down every day. We weren’t allowed to drip anything onto the wood. It was a very, very tall order, and it took a good portion of our budget and energy. A few people did nothing but that.
There’s a lot of research out there about the Japanese markets — the tea vendor, the ramen vendor, the dried fish vendor. We built all the booths, the kimchi cart that Sunja makes. We were working off references, but we created it from scratch. The whole art department got together to make the food over a number of days, so we did have to keep it to things that can survive, because we had no refrigeration out there. Hopefully what we did was give enough of an impression of what it was like.
What are particularly interesting and exciting props related to food that the average viewer might miss?
The depths with which we created the kitchens, the amount of items within there that were authentic — you could have gone into that kitchen, and there was everything you needed to live that life. It was true both of the set in the village, and the 1989 house — it had an enormous stock of things that belonged there, that were real, that made it totally authentic and comfortable. What I consider one of my most important jobs is to make an actor feel comfortable: They need to walk in and feel that they live there. And I think that that was achieved.
Food in Pachinko seems to be representative of both love and power: It’s how people express and contextualize wealth, but it’s also how people show their love for one another. Were the thematic elements of the food and Pachinko reflected in specific prop choices? How?
The wedding scene in the ’80s, with the financial boom, the idea was that power, that incredible wealth, is displayed on those plates. But to me, the food in Pachinko represents comfort: The way Sunja and her sister-in-law created these meals, the way they kept their family together.
New episodes of Pachinko are available weekly on Apple TV+. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.