Thousands of feet in the air in an ambiguous state between morning and night, I was on a flight to Seoul, South Korea, where I had studied abroad for my fall semester. To make the 14 hours in the air more bearable, I skimmed through a cinematic variety of Korean and American hit films during my flight and fell upon Minari. Immediately, I decided that this was going to be movie #1 on my flight film marathon.

Since this film came out last year, it had been on the top of my movie bucket list. It intricately weaves together the story of a Korean-American family making a life of their own in rural Arkansas. Through struggles and hidden joys, this family finds resilience in the unmoving strength that resonates from family and culture. A monumental part of this concept stems from the food that one associates with a culture or home. The very title, Minari, represents in a literal sense a common vegetable that is used as a side dish and as part of several main dishes, like bibimbap, in Korea.

Personally, I related a lot to this film…I am also a Korean-American that grew up in the South. Born in corn country, better known as Iowa, I continuously made my way south by moving to Mississippi, and then finally Florida. Although Florida is what I call home after living there for most of my life, I still remember my early days in Mississippi. Like for David and Anne, the two children of the Yi family in Minari, there was no one around that looked remotely similar to me. No classmates, neighbors, or teachers had any hint of Asian — let alone Korean — identity that I could relate to. Despite this, my parents had always strived to familiarize Korean culture to my sister and I. Food was a HUGE part of that. Every day, we would have at least one Korean meal. We had no other family in America to visit and share these traditional home-cooked meals, so it was a sort of precious routine for the four of us to preserve our culture on the dinner table.

The author and her family.

When I was younger, there was also no Korean mart close by. In Florida, we would have to drive six hours to Atlanta just to grab some good quality rice cakes and kimchi to whisk back home. A scene in Minari that particularly reminded me of this was when Monica teared up in joy as her mother gifted her with red pepper flakes and dried anchovies from Korea. She explained that she would have to drive eight hours to Dallas in order to get these ingredients, and she still doesn’t seem to get any that tastes the same as home. The effect that even a staple ingredient has in making someone feel more at home or reminding someone of one’s culture is quite monumental in that way. It can make someone drive hours just to be able to replicate a meal from the past.  

In the film, the grandmother, Soonja, stays with the Yi family and brings a refreshing sort of disruption into their daily lives. Coming all the way from South Korea, she had brought with her an array of witty comments, cunning skills in the game of Go-Stop, and a precious bunch of minari seeds. After finding a concealed creek close to the family’s nearly desiccated farm with David and Anne, she proudly claims that it’s just right for planting minari. By leading the children slightly away from the physical home that they had become accustomed to and into this new region of the land — where she introduces the vegetable minari to them — Soonja was in a large sense planting a part of Korean culture into their American lives.

This becomes a meaningful symbol of perseverance as the minari grows throughout the family’s hardships and struggles. It expresses that even in the center of America’s “heartland,” where there are little traces of anything Korean, the minari and the Yi family simultaneously find a way to keep their cultural identity strong.

It brought me back to my own childhood in the said “heartland,” where minari was a foreign anomaly and red chili pepper flakes were a scarce seasoning only to be found hours away in a different state. There seemed to be no room for food that was too far apart from the standard baby back ribs and fried okra. But throughout my childhood and early life, eating Korean food was still very common for me — at least at home. I was never deprived of gimbap on long weekends, or the traditional seaweed soup every year for my birthday. It was my silent teacher for the culinary, traditional, and even societal aspects of Korean culture.

Yes, there were definitely times when I felt the discomfort and prejudices that unfortunately seemed to come as a package deal to being Asian-American (especially in the South), but Korean food had gifted me with comfort and a curiosity to learn more about my cultural background. That’s the thing about food. It doesn’t discriminate, and it’s there for anyone that wants to try it. It can make someone feel at home, even if that person is miles away from it.

This is what I realized after ending Minari on that day miles into the air, on my way to the very country that is reflected upon it. I was going to a country that I identify with, yet had never been able to fully immerse in. It was a step that made me nervous but excited as I progressed in this sort of reverse direction from what my parents had experienced as they first flew from Korea to America. It’s an odd state to feel like a sort of foreigner in both America and South Korea, as I look like a Korean but speak like an American (whether that’s in English or Korean). But along with Korean shows and music, Korean food has consistently been able to make me feel more connected to my cultural identity.