Joanne Lee Molinaro is a lawyer, marathon runner and TikTok sensation like @thekoreanvegan. The Chicagoan took time out of his busy schedule to talk about his debut cookbook / memoir “The Korean Vegan” released on Tuesday, October 12th. Here’s what she had to say about being one of the most famous Korean vegans.
Buy “The Korean Vegan” on Amazon
Inhabitat: How did you decide to adopt a plant-based diet?
Molinaro: I decided to adopt a plant-based diet following suggestions from my then boyfriend (now husband). At his urging, I watched many movies and read a lot of books about the impact that animal husbandry had on health and climate change and became more open to the idea of going plant-based. I was also worried that if I did not join him to this change in diet, it would add a complication to a relatively incipient relationship.
Therefore, I decided to give it a try. In the end, it ended up being far easier than I had expected. Also during that time, my father became ill with prostate cancer, and given what I had read in my research on the link between eating red meat and cancer, I felt best that I stopped eating meat permanently.
Related: Inspiration for cooking from vegan recipes around the world
Inhabitat: How did your Korean-American family and friends react to that decision?
Molinaro: Many of them were skeptical or simply confused about the decision. Some of them said, “But how can you be vegan? You are Korean! Many people — including Korean Americans — believe that Korean food is very meat-centered (think Korean barbecue), and therefore Korean people cannot be vegan.
My family simply assumed I was just trying to lose weight (and to be honest, the thought came to me at the time, even though weight loss no longer has anything to do with why I’m vegan). Now, though, I think both my family and friends have seen how much closer to my legacy going vegan has brought me, and that it is far more than a diet for me.
Inhabitat: Which traditional Korean dishes are particularly well-suited to a vegan interpretation?
Molinaro: There is a whole segment of Korean cuisine that is already largely plant-based – Buddhist temple cuisine. The food is prepared by Korean Buddhist nuns and is in line with the philosophy of “doing as little harm as possible.” As such, nuns avoid using animal products when cooking (e.g., they do not use fish sauce when fermenting kimchi).
Although the ingredients are often considered “humble” because they do not contain meat (which still symbolizes wealth in Korea), many of these dishes actually come straight from the kitchens of Korean courtesans – women who served in Korean palaces often remained unmarried for their term of office and retired to Buddhist temples, where they then shared their knowledge of the cuisine of the palace. It is no wonder that completely plant-based restaurants in Korea are now Michelin-starred restaurants- the food is amazing, tasty and completely vegan.
Otherwise, many of the bananas (or accessories) are well suited to be “veganized”. Most banchan highlights pickled or spicy vegetables, and often the only thing you need to do is remove the fish sauce to make them completely plant-based. A good example of this is kimchi.
Inhabitat: Some Korean dishes that were really hard to veganize?
Molinaro: The hardest thing I’ve had to veganize so far is a good broth. Many Korean stews start 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 contains a vegetable broth that is excellent. I’m pretty 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 for dinner. Sometimes referred to as “garnishes”, the banchan’s role is really to maximize every mouthful of food (ie the perfect bite). Korean food teaches the palate to appreciate a combination of flavors and textures, how they play together and enhance each other.
For example, instead of just focusing on your protein, move on to your carbs and then sip on your salad. Each spoonful is an opportunity to make a delicious mosaic of complementary flavors that can include a little rice, a little protein, a piece of salted vegetable, all followed by a spicy spoonful of soybeans – salty, sour, soft, crispy, hot and cold all come together for a unique blend of delicacy.
Inhabitant: Tell us a little about your new cookbook.
Molinaro: My new cookbook is designed to live up to the aphorism: “Do you love my food? Love my people. “I want people to see how varied Korean cuisine is – it’s not just Korean barbecue. I also want them to see how easy it is to add flavors from your childhood to new plant-based favorites so you can always maintain 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 of being a famous vegan on social media?
Molinaro: I absolutely do not think I’m famous! Believe me – my husband and dog, Rudy, would quickly abuse such a view! That said, it gives me access to an incredible community of plant-based individuals who have so many of the same values as me — whether I have a great social media as a vegan — whether it’s a love of animals, a sense of management across the planet or mindful eating in general.
I am so grateful to the plant-based community for their vocal and sometimes protective support for my work. Unfortunately, it’s on the back of this coin that my big supporters expose me to the trolls – those who think veganism is “unnatural.” Fortunately, I do not get much of it!
Inhabitat: What do you want 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!
Inhabitat: Do you want to share a recipe with us?
Molinaro: Of course! One of my favorite recipes in the book is Pecan Paht Pie. It’s perfect for the upcoming holidays and it’s being requested by my totally non-vegan family every year!
PECAN PAHT (피칸 팥 파이 • Sweet red bean) PIE
One Thanksgiving, I decided I wanted to make pecan pie, which my family would actually eat. We are not fans of overly sweet desserts, but my dad absolutely loves pecans. The answer to creating a less clever sweet filling was simple – paht! Not only is the red bean paste far less sugar-y than the typical vanilla flavor-like filling of a traditional pecan pie, I knew my family would immediately 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 base:
1½ cups (210 grams) plain flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
⅔ cup (152 grams) cold vegan butter, cut into cubes of ½ inches
3 to 4 tablespoons ice water
For 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
Salt tsp salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract 2 cups (220 grams) chopped pecans
3½ tablespoons (35 grams) potato starch
1 cup (110 grams) pecan halves
1. Make the pie base: Mix flour, sugar and salt in a food processor and pulse under the butter, a few pieces at a time. Add the ice water, one tablespoon at a time, until a dough begins to form.
2. Form the dough into a ball. Do not handle more than necessary. Pack with plastic and refrigerate for at least four hours, but best if overnight.
3. Preheat oven to 350 ° F.
4. Make the pie filling and topping: In a medium bowl, combine 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 baking paper. Carefully roll out the pie dough with a rolling pin until it is large enough to line a nine-inch pie tin. Place the crust in the pan and cut any excess dough at the edges with a kitchen cutter or a sharp cutting knife. Pour in the filling. Top the filling with pecan halves.
Transfer the pie to the oven and bake it until the pie filling settles (ie do not shake too much), one hour to one hour and 15 minutes. Cool the pie on a rack for two hours before serving.
Via “The Korean Vegan Cookbook”
Pictures via the Korean vegan
When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn commissions at no cost to you.