The Korean Vegan Shares Plant-Based Ways to Celebrate Her Culture

Catch up with blogger and TikTok star Joanne Lee Molinaro as she shares stories of veganizing Korean-American food and embracing family traditions.

If you've gotten lost in the food social media world over the past year as I have, you might have come across videos of mouthwatering recipes by The Korean Vegan. For me, I was particularly drawn to these videos of plant-based Korean food not only because they looked delicious, but also the heartfelt stories relating back to family and self-empowerment that were spoken by one of the most soothing voices I've ever heard. The voice and recipes belong to Joanne Lee Molinaro, the name behind The Korean Vegan, a lawyer that started a food blog back in 2016 that turned into a social media sensation with more than 3.5 million combined followers. She recently left her law practice to create content as The Korean Vegan full-time and is already a New York Times best-selling author of her namesake cookbook. I was fortunate to catch up with Molinaro to talk about how she celebrates her holidays and her culture through these amazing food creations as well as the must-have ingredient I need to pick up on my next run to the Asian market.

portrait of Joanne Lee Molinaro author of The Korean Vegan cookbook on the left with a photo of their food on the right
Courtesy of Joanne Lee Molinaro

Becoming The Korean Vegan and Embracing Cultural Identity

If you've ever had Korean food, you know that vegan doesn't usually fit the description of the dishes. So when Molinaro decided she wanted to go vegan, she says she selfishly started a blog in an effort to make sure she could still enjoy her favorite food. "I was like, I'm not going to be vegan if I can't eat Korean food," Molinaro says. "Ultimately what that did was sort of force me to really understand Korean food in a way that I really took for granted before." And after spending that time really getting into the nuts and bolts of her Korean heritage through food, she also found herself inspired to know more of her family's history. Through this, she'd learn new things such as what her parents grew up eating and the methodology behind her aunt's homemade kimchi. "These are stories that are intimate, vulnerable, and beautiful, and will honestly disappear if we don't take the time to document them and be honest about them," Molinaro says.

Joanne Lee Molinaro

For many immigrant families, the cultural cuisine is part and parcel of your cultural identity. You can't separate the two.

—Joanne Lee Molinaro
overhead table view of Korean foods in dishes
Courtesy of The Korean Vegan

Celebrating American Holidays That Are Both Korean and Plant-Based

Growing up, Molinaro admits she resented her parents making the family eat Korean food 99% of the time. So when the holidays came around, it was one of the few times American foods (such as a turkey and stuffing at Thanksgiving) made it to the table. This became the norm for many years until Molinaro realized she didn't really enjoy these foods after all. "I think it was just the novelty of it that excited us for a while," she recalls. In a recent video, Molinaro notes how Chuseok (the Korean Thanksgiving) is about celebrating a good harvest and giving thanks to family members. As she grew older, she welcomed more Korean favorites such as her mother's egg rolls or japchae over the "traditional" bird and dressing.

Joanne Lee Molinaro

I think it's important to look at what you like to eat, not what is supposed to be on the table or what everyone tells you is supposed to be on your table. Just think about what you like to eat because at the end of the day, the holidays is about celebrating your family, it's about celebrating each other, it's about celebrating another year of life. We should be grateful for that, especially with what's going on right now in the world.

—Joanne Lee Molinaro

Since going plant-based, the holiday feast started to look even more different, but Molinaro aims to keep her favorite Korean flavors in the dishes. She also notes her mother and aunt have become pros at veganizing traditional Korean foods. To set a mouthwatering scene, she says there is "a wide assortment of Korean foods that are both plant-based and non-plant-based" as well as Americanized Korean foods she likes to make such as kimchi macaroni and cheese or a kimchi stuffing.

Buy It: The Korean Vegan Cookbook ($35, Amazon)

overhead view of pecan pie
This pecan paht pie featuring red bean was the result of The Korean Vegan looking for a way to serve a traditional dessert at Thanksgiving that wasn't overly sweet. Courtesy of Joanne Lee Molinaro

The One Ingredient to Add to Your (Vegan) Korean Pantry

In wrapping up our conversation (which I didn't want to end because I could listen to Molinaro talk all day), I wondered what ingredients she recommended adding to my pantry that are vegan and Korean. Her answer? Soy sauce. "Most people think that it's one uniform flavor and sauce, but this is not true," Molinaro says. "There are hundreds of different kinds of soy sauce out there." She pointed out that in Korea, by law, soy sauce is required to be categorized into four different types. Half of my family is an Asian American immigrant family and this is something I didn't know, so I'm now eager to try the different types.

When seeking ways to get started in cooking Korean cuisine, Molinaro suggests starting with bonchon, which are small sides that are usually plant-based. If you're looking to add some new flavors to your holiday menu, Molinaro set up a plant-based Korean meal planner to get you started. If you grab the cookbook, try a showstopper such as the vegan pecan paht pie (pictured above) or a loaf of paht bbang which features paht (sweet red bean paste).

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