Cover Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-Jung) with David (Alan S. Kim) on the riverbank where she grows minari (Photo: Josh Ethan Johnson/A24)

We delve into the poeticism behind this seemingly humble herb, and why director Lee Isaac Chung chose to name his critically-acclaimed film after it

In Lee Isaac Chung's semi-autobiographical film Minari, there is a scene where Soon-ja, the recently arrived grandmother of a Korean family in rural Arkansas, brings her grandson David (Alan S. Kim) to a creek behind their house. There, she has planted the seeds of the vegetable which lends the movie its name—despite arriving in America in Soon-ja's luggage, they have quickly taken to the wet soil, almost blanketing the riverbank despite the entirely foreign environment.

“The wind is blowing, the minari are bowing as if they’re saying thank you,” she says.

Youn Yuh-jung, the veteran who plays Soon-ja, can certainly give minari a bow of thanks in return, having just today become the first Korean and the second Asian to take home an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. But what is this vegetable, and why did Chung decide to name the film after it?

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Minari is the Korean name for oenanthe javanica, a perennial herb that is grown throughout East Asia. In every country it is cultivated, minari has picked up a different name: Chinese celery, Japanese parsley, Indian pennywort, Java water dropwort, or water celery. It is the only species within the water dropwort family that is edible, all others being extremely toxic. 

Within Korean cuisine, minari is commonplace thanks to its crunchy, hollow stems, and an abundance of leaves that taste like carrot tops or celery, with a slight peppery and bitter flavour to boot. It is frequently prepared as a seasoned salad known as minari-muchim, mixed into bibimbap, or cooked in maeuntang, a popular spicy fish soup. Outside of Korea, minari is also eaten in Japan as sukiyaki or as a New Year's congee dish called nanakusa-no-sekku. Minari has also been used in traditional folk medicine since antiquity, and was believed to have a detoxifying effect.

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The ability of minari to grow anywhere like a weed, as Soon-ja explains to her grandson, no doubt contributed to its widespread culinary use across East Asia. Though David at first brushes off minari as a "useless" relic of Korea, much like his dismissive attitude of Soon-ja, the importance of the crop becomes clear when, towards the end of the film, a turn of events leads to Soon-ja's minari to become the family's only way to make a living.

The vegetable's resilience becomes a metaphor for the trials and tribulations that the Korean family faces in uprooting themselves and transplanting their lives in a new place, adapting to the environment to survive, and eventually, thrive. As Chung puts it: "The interesting thing about it is that it's a plant that will grow very strongly in its second season after it has died and come back. So there's an element of that in the film... It's a poetic plant in a way for me."

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