Movies

The Story Behind the Vegetable That Gave Minari Its Name

An older Korean woman cocks her head to the side.
Youn Yuh-jung in Minari. Josh Ethan Johnson/A24

Minari often heralds the first days of spring. Long-stemmed with fronds that look similar to American parsley, the namul (vegetable) has a delicate flavor with a grassy, peppery aftertaste. In a meal, minari can be a welcome surprise: a giant fistful of bright green might adorn a bubbling spicy fish stew or sit among many banchan sides in a full Korean dinner spread.

Minari has many English names throughout the different Asian countries where it also grows: water dropwort, Chinese celery, Indian pennywort, Japanese parsley. The Korean word itself breaks down into mi, meaning water, and nari, meaning vegetable. Minari is now entering the American lexicon via Lee Isaac Chung’s new film of the same name, a deeply personal take on the director’s own Korean American childhood that follows an immigrant family settling in rural Arkansas.

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In the movie, Jacob, played by Steven Yeun, starts a farm of Korean fruits and vegetables. Native Korean greens like minari, perilla leaves, ssuk (mugwort), ssukgat (chrysanthemum greens), and gosari (fernbrake) have long grown wild in South Korea’s arable land. Since the Joseon era, food has been medicine, and these vegetables were foraged to address a variety of ailments. Minari was believed to be a detoxifying agent and used to treat fever, dehydration, and high blood pressure. It was often featured in Korean royal court cuisine, particularly via a dish called minari ganghwe, a dish of pressed meat, red pepper, and egg tied into little bundles with blanched minari as the ribbon.

Foods popularized in the king’s court trickled down through the noble class and the common folk, eventually making their way into Korea’s unique culinary landscape today. High in vitamins A and B, potassium, and calcium, minari is currently sought after as a hangover remedy and an anti-inflammatory salve. When my sister broke out in hives during a childhood trip to Seoul due to a fish allergy, she was prescribed a drinkable extract made from powdered minari. It’s also popularly found in maeuntang, a spicy fish stew that’s both a drinking food and hangover cure; minari is believed to negate any potential poisons found in fish as well as your boozy bloodstream.

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While it is a vegetable easily adaptable to many climates due to its short growing season, minari grows most prolifically in the southern provinces of South Korea. There are many fields, wetlands, and places near water there where the sun shines for longer than up north by the capital. Minari began to be cultivated in these regions during the late 1980s and early 1990s when it was specifically planted in rice paddies and grown in greenhouses. Coupled with its two- to three-month growing season, this has allowed minari to be produced up to three times throughout the year.

One area, Hanjae Village in Cheongdo, is particularly well known for its variety of minari dubbed “Hanjae minari,” with a thicker, purple-tipped stem. Here, the harvest of minari heralds the arrival of spring as early as February, and foodies travel hours to indulge in the first minari picked. Grills are set up throughout the village for visitors to cook samgyeopsal, the go-to pairing for the delicate, early-spring minari. Hardier varieties emerge as the growing season continues. These minari are commonly served as a banchan called minari muchim, where the greens are simply blanched and seasoned with garlic, soy sauce, and sesame oil. They’re also popularly cooked in jeon (a type of Korean pancake), added to stews, or included as one of the many vegetables seen in bibimbap.

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Minari is not very commonly found stateside. As with many natively Asian vegetables, minari can only typically be found at specialty Asian grocery stores that cater to larger Korean American populations like in New York City and Los Angeles, and even then unreliably—I visited four different stores before finding a few bunches for the below recipes. Its scarcity here seems to further highlight its unique Koreanness. Many enterprising Korean immigrants have brought their own seeds back during visits home to grow in their backyards or gardens.

This may shed some more light on the title of Chung’s movie. One character says it’s an ingredient eaten by everyone from beggars to millionaires; Youn Yuh-jung, a renowned South Korean film and television actress who plays the movie’s grandmother, suggested minari is a vegetable that can grow anywhere, representing Korean immigrants who could settle anywhere. As Jacob and his family settle into Arkansas, a state on a similar latitude as the southern regions of South Korea, minari is both a connection to their homeland and a marker of a new beginning.

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Here are two different recipes featuring the Korean minari. Minari jeon, a simple pancake featuring minari as the star ingredient, also includes samgyeopsal (pork belly), which it’s commonly paired with during the early spring harvest in South Korea. Minari muchim is a common banchan preparation—an elegant and savory side dish that pairs perfectly with rice.

Minari Jeon

Ingredients:

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1 bunch minari (find it at your local Korean or Asian grocery store labeled as dropwort, water celery, or water parsley)
8 small pieces of very thinly sliced pork belly, or 4 slices of bacon cut in half (optional)
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup water
1 tablespoon dwenjang (Korean soybean paste)
1 tablespoon gochugaru
1 teaspoon minced garlic
2 tablespoons perilla oil (can substitute with sesame or canola oil)

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Dipping sauce ingredients:

2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon sugar

Directions:

1. Prepare batter by mixing flour, water, dwenjang, gochugaru, and garlic until incorporated.

2. Cut minari into 1 inch pieces, and mix into batter. The batter should just coat the minari without much loose batter left, but it’s OK if there’s more.

3. Heat perilla oil in a nonstick skillet over medium-low heat (you can divide the oil and cook in batches if needed). When the oil begins shimmering, drop large spoonfuls of the battered minari like pancakes. Each piece should be about 3 inches in diameter.

4. Cook for about three minutes on one side, until bubbles begin to form along the edges. If using, place pork belly slices on the pancakes.

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5. Once the pancakes are golden on the side that is down, flip so the pork belly side is down. Cook for another three to five minutes until golden brown and remove from pan.

6. Mix sauce ingredients, and serve alongside pancakes.

Minari Muchim

Ingredients:

1 bunch minari (find it at your local Korean or Asian grocery store labeled as dropwort, water celery, or water parsley)
1 scallion, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon sesame seeds
2 teaspoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon salt (more to taste)

Directions:

1. Bring a pot of water to a boil. Blanch minari for 30 seconds—it should turn bright green—then remove and quickly rinse in cold water until cooled.

2. Drain minari and squeeze thoroughly to remove any excess water.

3. Cut into 3 inch pieces, and toss with remaining ingredients until thoroughly mixed.

4. Serve with rice and other banchan. This dish will keep in the refrigerator for up to a week.

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