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?
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.