Joanne Lee Molinaro is a trial lawyer, marathon runner and TikTok sensation as @thekoreanvegan. The Chicagoan took time out of her busy schedule to talk about her debut cookbook/memoir “The Korean Vegan” released on Tuesday, Oct. 12. Here’s what she had to say about being one of the best-known Korean vegans.

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(Left to right) The Korean Vegan cookbook cover, portrait of author

Inhabitat: How did you decide to adopt a plant-based diet?

Molinaro: I decided to adopt a plant-based diet at the suggestion of my then boyfriend (now husband). At his urging, I watched a lot of movies and read a lot of books about the impact animal agriculture had on health and climate change and grew more open to the idea of going plant-based. I also worried that if I didn’t join him in this change in diet that it would inject a complication into a fairly nascent relationship. 

Accordingly, I decided to give it a try on a probationary basis.  Ultimately, it ended up being far easier than I expected. Also during that time, my father grew ill with prostate cancer, and given what I’d read in my research regarding the link between the consumption of red meat and cancer, I felt it best that I discontinue eating meat permanently.

Related: Cooking inspiration from vegan recipes all over the world

Inhabitat: How did your Korean-American family and friends respond to that decision?

Molinaro: Many of them were skeptical or simply confused by the decision.  Some of them said, “But how can you be vegan? You’re Korean!” Lots of people — including Korean Americans — believe that Korean food is very meat-centric (think Korean BBQ) and, therefore, Korean people can’t be vegan.

My family simply assumed that I was just trying to lose weight (and, to be honest, the thought did cross my mind at the time, even though weight loss no longer has anything to do with why I’m vegan). Now, though, I believe both my family and friends have seen just how much closer to my heritage going vegan has brought me and that it’s far more than a diet to me.

Inhabitat:  Which traditional Korean dishes lend themselves especially well to a vegan interpretation?

Molinaro: There’s a whole segment of Korean cuisine that is already largely plant based — Buddhist Temple Cuisine. Prepared by Korean Buddhist nuns, the food is consistent with the philosophy of “do as little harm as possible.” As such, the nuns avoid using animal products when cooking (e.g. they do not use fish sauce when fermenting kimchi). 

While the ingredients are often thought of as “humble” because they do not incorporate meat (which still symbolizes wealth in Korea), in fact, many of these dishes come straight out of the kitchens of Korean courtesans — women who served in the Korean palaces often remained unmarried for their tenure and retired to Buddhist temples, where they then shared their knowledge of palace cuisine. It’s no wonder that entirely plant-based restaurants in Korea are now Michelin rated eateries — the food is stunning, flavorful and totally vegan.

Otherwise, many of the banchan (or side dishes) lend themselves well to being “veganized.” Most banchan highlight pickled or seasoned vegetables and, often times, all you have to do is remove the fish sauce to render them completely plant based. A good example of this is kimchi. 

Inhabitat: Any Korean dishes that were really hard to veganize? 

Molinaro: The hardest thing I’ve had to veganize thus far is a good broth. Many Korean stews start out with a very rich pork or beef broth. Developing a vegetable broth that could provide the same kind of complexity and depth was challenging, but my upcoming cookbook includes a vegetable broth that is excellent. I’m quite proud of it!

Inhabitat: What do you think is special about Korean food?

Molinaro: I think banchan is what makes Korean food so unique. There are usually anywhere from 10 to 20 of these small dishes on a Korean dining table at dinner. Sometimes referred to as “garnishes,” the role of banchan is truly to maximize each mouthful of food (i.e. the perfect bite). Korean food teaches the palate to appreciate a combination of flavors and textures, how they interplay and enhance each other. 

For example, instead of simply focusing on your protein, moving to your carbs and then nibbling on your salad. Each spoonful is an opportunity to craft a mouthwatering mosaic of complementary tastes that might include a little rice, some protein, a sliver of some pickled vegetable, all followed by a piping hot spoonful of soybean stew — salty, tart, soft, crunchy, hot and cold all come together to form a unique blend of deliciousness.

Inhabitat: Tell us a little bit about your new cookbook.

Molinaro: My new cookbook is designed to live up to the aphorism: “Love my food? Love my people.” I want people to see how varied Korean cuisine is — it’s not just Korean BBQ.  I also want them to see how easy it is to infuse flavors from your childhood into new plant-based favorites so that you can always retain that connection to your heritage and culture. Finally, I want people to fall in love with my family — the people behind my food.

Inhabitat: What are the pros and cons to being a famous vegan on social media?

Molinaro: I totally don’t think I’m famous! Believe me — my husband and dog, Rudy, would disabuse me of such a notion pretty quickly! That said, having a large social media following as a vegan, does give me access to an incredible community of plant-based individuals who share so many of the same values as I do — whether it’s a love of animals, a sense of stewardship over the planet or mindful eating in general.

I am so grateful to the plant-based community for their vocal and sometimes protective support of my work. Unfortunately, on the flip side of that coin is that my large following subjects me to the trolls — those who think veganism is “unnatural.” Luckily, I don’t get much of that though!

Inhabitat: What else would you like readers to know about you?

 Molinaro: I used to be addicted to video games and can still go toe-to-toe with the best in Mario Kart!

Close up of pecan pie

Inhabitat: Would you share a recipe with us?

Molinaro: Sure! One of my favorite recipes in the book is the Pecan Paht Pie. It’s perfect for the upcoming holidays and it’s requested by my totally non-vegan family every year!

PECAN PAHT (피칸팥파이 • Sweet Red Bean) PIE

Serves 8-10

Difficulty: Medium

Allergens: GFO

One Thanksgiving I decided I wanted to make pecan pie that my family would actually eat. We’re not fans of overly sweet desserts, but my father absolutely loves pecans. The answer to creating a less cloyingly sweet filling was simple — paht! Not only is the red bean paste far less sugar-y than the typical custard-like filling of a traditional pecan pie, I knew my family would instantly appreciate the familiar flavor. I presented my little pie that Thanksgiving, and since then I have been asked to make it every year.

For the pie crust:

1½ cups (210 grams) all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon salt

⅔ cup (152 grams) cold vegan butter, cut into ½-inch cubes

3 to 4 tablespoons ice water

For the pie filling and topping:

¾ cup (300 grams) brown rice syrup

6 tablespoons soy or oat milk

1 cup (320 grams) paht

¼ cup (50 grams) light brown sugar

4 tablespoons (57 grams) vegan butter, melted and cooled

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon vanilla extract 2 cups (220 gram) chopped pecans

3½ tablespoons (35 gram) potato starch

1 cup (110 gram) pecan halves

Steps:

1. Make the pie crust: In a food processor, combine the flour, sugar and salt and pulse while adding the butter, a few pieces at a time. Add the ice water, one tablespoon at a time, until a dough starts to form.

2. Shape the dough into a ball. Do not handle more than necessary. Wrap with plastic and refrigerate for at least four hours, but best if overnight.

3. Preheat the oven to 350°F.

4. Make the pie filling and topping: In a medium bowl, combine the brown rice syrup, soy milk, paht, brown sugar, melted butter, salt, vanilla, chopped pecans and potato starch.

5. Place the pie dough between two sheets of parchment paper. Using a rolling pin, roll out the pie dough gently until it is large enough to line a nine-inch pie pan. Ease the crust into the pan and trim any excess dough at the edges with kitchen shears or a sharp paring knife. Pour in the filling. Top the filling with pecan halves.

6. Transfer the pie to the oven and bake until the pie filling sets (i.e. doesn’t jiggle too much), one hour to one hour 15 minutes. Cool the pie on a wire rack for two hours before serving.

Via “The Korean Vegan Cookbook”

Images via The Korean Vegan

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