In a time when identity can be divisive, Joanne Lee Molinaro has curated a space to bring people together: Korean, vegan or otherwise.
The first time I encountered Molinaro, also known as the Korean Vegan, it was through her TikTok. The app’s algorithm, always uncannily certain of the type of content I would want to watch, delivered me a video of hers. It eludes me now which one I saw first, exactly — but I remember immediately going to her profile and scrolling through dozens more.
In a little more than a year, Molinaro has amassed 2.7 million followers on TikTok. Her most viral videos feature cinematic shots of her hands preparing food, carefully wrapping rice paper, shredding tofu, ladling clear broth, chopping scallions. The TikToks are draped in a signature color palette of dark greys and blacks, a cool-toned aesthetic which also envelops the pages of her cookbook. She speaks in a gentle, firm narration, sharing experiences from her life and family history. The stories cover her success as a corporate lawyer, her long-distance running, her family’s immigration story, her connection to Korean heritage, resilience, love, heartbreak.
When I spoke to Molinaro for NextShark, I found the same warmth and generosity in our conversation. She explained that this was a space she had been working to cultivate over the years, both in her blog and on social media since she started the Korean Vegan in 2016. “I wanted to create a space where as many people as possible could feel welcome, while also starting important discussion, particularly on race,” she shared. “I realized in 2017 that if I simply just said, ‘Hey, this is a place about race, and we’re going to talk about racism,’ a lot of people would just tune me out. So it was important for me to find a way to get into people’s hearts and minds without having them be sort of defensive and guarded from the get-go.”
To combat this, she focuses on herself and her own experiences, something that people can’t deny. “The one thing that I’ve learned is: turn it back to me. This is my experience, this is my feeling, this is how I feel. You cannot question my credibility and authority on these things. I am the most authoritative person when it comes to my experience and my feelings.”
Becoming the Korean Vegan
The sense of warmth and generosity in Molinaro’s content extends to her feelings about veganism as well. She describes her experience becoming vegan as a journey. At first, she was afraid that changing to a plant-based diet would disrupt her sense of identity. “For a lot of us, that’s our one big tie to our cultural identity,” she said. “For people like my mom and dad who can’t go back to North Korea, that’s not an option for them, and for refugees in particular, it’s not an option to go back to their native countries. So food becomes one of the few things they have left of their homes.”
When her husband proposed that they both become vegan, she said it caused a lot of tension because she felt that as a white man, he didn’t completely understand the depth of what he was asking of her. “This idea of threatening to take that from me was a big point of contention… I really felt like ‘You’re asking me to give up my Korean-ness, and you have no idea what that means to me.’”
Eventually, she says that paradoxically, her journey of becoming a vegan ultimately helped her become closer to her Korean heritage. “One of the joys of veganizing my favorite dishes has been that it actually brought me so much closer to my cultural cuisine. A lot of times, especially second-generation Asian immigrant families, they sort of take for granted these things. ‘Oh yeah, I don’t need to figure out how to make kimchi-jjigae, it’s always been done this way.’ Well, when you have to veganize something, at least for me… I want to learn.”
Molinaro does extensive research while creating her recipes, digging into the origins of the Korean foods she adapts. “I want to know how it was made originally. I want to know how to make the broth and what other things are in there. Because then it’s my job to veganize it. And that process has brought me so much closer to Korean food, to my own family and to my own heritage.”
She also says she understands the hesitation of many Asian Americans in going vegan. What helped her most, she explained, was taking things step-by-step and eliminating animal products gradually. Some things were more difficult than others — dairy traditionally does not play a large part in Korean cuisine, so that was less of a challenge than eggs, which are more ubiquitous in all kinds of cuisine. “I think my advice for anyone would be, practically speaking: go at your own pace. There’s no rule that says compassionate eating, whether it’s for the animals or yourself or the planet, or whatever reason it is, has to look exactly the same way as everyone else’s.”
Regarding the decision to become vegan, she shared, “I don’t just value my Korean-ness, that is a part of who I am. I also value things like longevity, living as long as I can, living healthy… And that’s okay. You can value being Korean and also value having a long life, having a healthy life… I think the challenge is trying to figure out a way that those two values could coexist in my life.”
The cookbook Molinaro wrote is called “The Korean Vegan Cookbook: Reflections and Recipes from Omma’s Kitchen.” Over the course of more than 300 pages, Molinaro shares recipes in categories such as Basics, Bbang (breads), Jjigae (stews) and more. Also nestled throughout the cookbook’s sections are stories of her family’s history and perseverance. A natural storyteller, Molinaro shrugs at the idea that she has lived a particularly inspiring life. She told me that people often ask her how she has so many poignant experiences to share with her audience, to which she responds, “You have as many stories as I do… We’re all just walking chapters, we’re all novels. We’re all walking around and we have these beautiful stories inside of us.”
The beginning of Molinaro’s cookbook goes into an in-depth analysis of common ingredients in Korean cooking. There’s a loving description of soy sauce, doenjang, gochujang and many other staples. Molinaro takes care to give an introduction to the ingredients — for some who might not have heard of them at all — and also frames them in a new context for readers who may already be very familiar with them. With soy sauce, for instance, she explains the complexity and history of the ingredient, discussing how there are hundreds of ways to prepare it, each with their own varieties and flavor profiles.
There’s also a note at the beginning of her cookbook which I think reflects her overall gentle but firm approach to sharing parts of herself with others. Just like in her stories on TikTok, she strives to create a space where people feel welcome, but also where they understand the importance of following the house rules. In the cookbook, this takes the form of a small warning at the beginning: “So, while I know you’re itching to make that jjajangmyun dish, be sure you know the difference between ‘black bean sauce’ and ‘fermented black soybean sauce.’”
I asked Molinaro about this approach and how she feels about the broader discussion of other people cooking Korean cuisine. “Number one, I would say: I just want the food to taste good. And I know that if you make this with paprika, it ain’t gonna taste good! That’s the most fundamental thing… This gentle insistence is more like, fine, I’m just warning you. If you use this, it’s gonna taste weird!”
I felt this remained remarkably consistent with Molinaro’s approach. She has created a community centered around her vegan-ness and Korean-ness, but never to the exclusion of any other identities. Her content, fundamentally, comes back to a simple human experience. She’s gathering us all together to share a meal and some stories.
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