How The Korean Vegan Merges Plant-Based Creations With Intimate Storytelling

Joanne Molinaro

Joanne Molinaro a.k.a. The Korean Vegan’s videos will instantly grab your attention, whether it’s for her vibrant vegan creations or the vulnerable storytelling that’s served with her cooking. In less than a minute, Molinaro who’s a lawyer by day and content creator at night manages to make your mouth water and also address tough topics like divorce, racism, and loss. Her pieces are soothing yet thought-provoking and show that food can serve as a universal language between us.

Although her posts sometimes reflect on painful moments, her overall message is one of perseverance and an ongoing pursuit of happiness, in particular for women who often put their joy in second place behind their family and partners. “No one is going to hand you joy,” says Molinaro. “You fight for it but whatever your situation is, you deserve to be deliriously happy.”

We spoke to Molinaro about her journey into plant-based cooking, why her videos were so uplifting for many during the pandemic, and her upcoming cookbook.

What role has cooking played in your life? Have you always cooked?
Joanne Molinaro: I have not always cooked. I cooked a little before I went vegan but then when I went vegan, I cooked a lot, by necessity. Cooking relieves stress for me. I love creating food and I particularly love baking. I also love eating food, in particular my own, which really helps with cooking. I enjoy eating what I make because it tastes really good [laughs].

When and why did you decide to adopt a plant-based diet?
My husband and I went plant-based in January 2016. He decided to go plant-based after reading Finding Ultra by Rich Roll for health reasons. I went plant-based because he went plant-based. I really didn’t want to initally but I decided that I valued our relationship more than chicken or pork. Once I went vegan, it was really easy and I decided to stay vegan.

Did you experience any pushback or curiosity since a lot of Korean cuisine is aligned with meat? Have you changed people’s minds about what Korean food entails?
Yes, I got pushback from my family. They thought I was doing this as a diet and said I was already thin enough. They couldn’t understand at first, they would give me kimchi and when I said I couldn’t eat it, they would be like “but there’s no meat in it!” I would have to explain that I couldn’t have fish sauce or shrimp sauce either. Ultimately, they came around when they saw how important it was to me.

From the larger Korean community, I got the sense of if you don’t cook kalbi or bulgogi, can you call yourself Korean? But it was never really overt, I didn’t get in any arguments or anything like that. It was more just a sense for me. In terms of changing people’s minds, I don’t think I did that but I have lots of Korean and Korean American followers who love my recipes. That’s an implicit gauge that there are people on board with the idea of being Korean and vegan.

@thekoreanvegan#fyp #fypシ #foryoupage #foryou #storytime #easymeal #cooking #koreanfood #korean #vegan #dadsoftiktok #love♬ original sound – Joanne L. Molinaro (이선영)

You share quite intimate and vulnerable stories, why do you think they resonate so well with your audience?
I think my stories resonate because of their presentation and delivery. I share delicious-looking food and have a voice that many people describe as calming and soothing. The delivery is part of it, it reels them in. Then the stories I share are very relatable, whether you’re vegan or not, a man or a woman, young or old, white or a person of color. Everyone experiences pain, loss, insecurity and these are things I talk about in my stories. I’ve been told that my stories are really depressing but I don’t think that’s true. I talk about tough experiences and how I overcame them. I believe my stories are very optimistic and hopeful. You’ve got to meet people where they’re at. Right now, with what’s going on in the world a lot of people are sad, depressed, isolated, and alone. A comment I’ve received a lot is “thank God you were here for my 2020” or “you were what helped me get through quarantine.” There was a demand for relief and companionship, and that’s the intent of my social media — a feeling of you’re not alone. I recently moved into a big house with the idea that I could entertain people there. Because of quarantine I couldn’t do that, so I thought okay fine, I can’t physically cook for you but you can watch me as if I’m cooking for you and I’ll share stories like I would at a dinner party.

Does this vulnerability help you balance your life as a lawyer?
For sure! Sometimes it can be stressful, it’s like two different parts of my brain need to be switched on and off. It’s not easy to switch into Korean Vegan mode. Within the last year, I’ve grown my platform but it’s not easy for me to just create a 60 second TikTok or write a recipe for my book. I love carving out three to four hours on a Saturday when I don’t have lawyer commitments. I can just say “oh today I want to make English muffins because the ones at the grocery store are horrible.” My camera is set up anyway and then it’s such a great feeling, I’ll turn off my phone and just focus on making something I enjoy eating.

If you had to pick a few posts that are dearest to you, which ones would you choose?
Number one would be the one about my dad with the spicy crunchy garlic tofu, which is about the note my father left me when I got divorced. It’s my most popular post and this moment I shared with my father is also one of my most precious. On top of that’s my most popular recipe, so it combines three great things.
Then I would choose the one where I’m making apple pie with the AOC voiceover in which she’s addressing the floor in response to Representative Yoho. I like that because the voiceover is inspiring and one of my first videos in which I was trying something different in terms of aesthetics. I was proud of how it came out. It revealed two sides of me – lawyer Joanne and blogger Joanne.

The Korean Vegan and Hahlmuhnee (her grandmother)

Molinaro and her grandmother at her law school graduation

How does your family feel about your posts?
I don’t think they understand a lot of what it is. Or if they do, I’m not a witness to it. The only thing my mom has mentioned is that she thinks people love my dad more than her [laughs]. She’ll say your dad’s video got eight million views and mine only got one million. My dad hasn’t said a word about it but he did come on a Live with me this weekend. I was like dad what do you think, all of these people love you, and he goes, “I’m so happy to have all of their appreciation.” It was very cute.

Tell me about your book, how did it come to be and what can people expect?
I secured a book deal with Penguin Random House when hardly anyone knew me. I had around 40,000 followers on Instagram, not that isn’t substantial but smaller in comparison to now. They saw my unique angle as The Korean Vegan and they liked my writing and story. This book is taking my posts and making them into a book. It has 90 recipes and veganized versions of Korean or fusion recipes. Sprinkled throughout are stories that bring these recipes to life.

@thekoreanveganReply to @nini.custom reposting as a usable sound. Music by @sleepingatlastofficial #pov #advice #love♬ original sound – Joanne L. Molinaro (이선영)

What recipes would you recommend for people starting out to make?
The book has different levels for each recipe. The overwhelming majority I tagged as easy. They basically say throw these ingredients together, mix them up, and there you go. I have one recipe which is soy sauce, sesame oil, onion, and maple syrup in a mason jar — now you have a dressing you can use on a variety of things. I also have an easy bread recipe I came up with it for my mom and aunt to make things simple. I have a lot of stews and soups. Those are simple and nothing needs to be perfectly diced or follow some complex cutting technique.

You’re a long-distance runner, author, TikToker, a woman of many talents. I suspect you might have another talent we don’t know about? And if not, what would you like to pick up?
The one talent I used to be known for is music, I was very into singing and took voice lessons for many years. I also play piano, violin, and guitar. I’m a very musical person and it runs in the family. Once I went to college, the practicality of a predictable paycheck took over. I did marry a musician though so that helps. Many people would be surprised to know about my musical talents. I posted one Tiktok of me singing once but then deleted it within 24 hours. I’m a bit shy about it now but I used to perform all the time. In one of my videos, I’m making mini scones and the music in the background is actually me singing.

Follow The Korean Vegan on Instagram here and on TikTok here 

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