Although Joanne Lee Molinaro is a trial attorney by day, she is much better known as the Korean Vegan, a social media star who cooks vegan Korean dishes for an audience of millions. For followers, the appeal of her videos isn’t only the soothing images of food being cooked; in each clip, Molinaro adds a voiceover, explaining an aspect of Korean culture, or telling a personal story.
Molinaro recreates this pairing of the personal with the practical in her debut cookbook, titled (naturally) The Korean Vegan. Each chapter begins with a story from Molinaro’s life or that of a family member before getting into more typical recipe headnotes. “Now that I’ve told you this story about my dad and how much he loves noodles, I will now tell you about noodles and their role in Korean culture,” she explains of her approach. “I wanted people to feel like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve fallen into this little world that Joanne had created for me where her dad is slurping noodles, Mom is worried about her job, and Grandma is pitter-pattering around.’”
Although glimpses of that family dynamic appear on Molinaro’s TikTok, the book is meant to be an “immersive experience,” rather than a quick snapshot. Along with these deeper dives into Molinaro’s family history, fans will also find recipes that she’s never shared before, including a much-requested recipe for vegan kimchi. “Literally since starting the Korean Vegan I have been asked for my kimchi recipe,” Molinaro says. “It’s such a central part of Korean cuisine, it’s almost interchangeable with my identity. I didn’t want to do something half-assed... The cookbook was the best vehicle to share this in a respectful way.”
When it comes to adapting traditional Korean recipes with vegan ingredients, Molinaro doesn’t intend to do anything halfway. “There are tropes in veganizing,” she says, such as simply swapping meat for a plant-based alternative like Beyond Meat. “It would be very easy to just do what everybody else does. For me what I am always trying to do is to go back to the original recipe.” This means coming up with her own substitutions for fish sauce, bulgogi, and more. “I’m pushing myself outside of the easy answer and trying to find an answer and solution that really brings me back to my childhood,” Molinaro adds. And in making Korean vegan food, she isn’t on a mission to convert anyone to a plant-based diet, or even to deliberately upend the notion that Korean food must contain meat. She is simply showing her fans and followers how she eats Korean food, as a person who is vegan.
The wasabi melt actually predated her embrace of veganism, and it’s a recipe she takes particular pride in. “My immigrant parents are super skeptical of any American food. Any time I tried to introduce them to something that wasn’t totally Korean they were like, ‘No, this is too salty, too sweet, this tastes weird,” she says. But a wasabi melt with roast beef was different. “I gave it to my mom and she was like, ‘This is the best sandwich,’ and that stuck with me.” When she went vegan, she wanted to make a sandwich that would get the same reaction, and switched the meat for bulgogi made with soy curls. That sandwich, she says, “ended up being even better.”
Bulgogi Wasabi Melt Recipe
Makes 2 sandwiches
2 tablespoons hummus
11⁄2 teaspoons wasabi powder
2 tablespoons vegan butter
4 slices of your favorite sandwich bread
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 slices vegan cheese
1⁄4 cup julienned red onion
1⁄2 cucumber, sliced lengthwise into 1⁄4-inch-thick slices
1 cup cooked bulgogi (see below)
Step 1: In a small bowl, mix together the hummus and wasabi powder.
Step 2: Spread the vegan butter onto one side of each slice of bread. Spread the wasabi hummus on the other side of each slice of bread.
Step 3: In a large nonstick skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-low. Place two slices of bread, butter-side down, into the pan. To each slice, quickly add 1 slice of vegan cheese, a few slivers of red onion, two slices of cucumber, and a ½ cup of bulgogi.
Step 4: Top the sandwiches with the other slices of bread, butter-side up. Press down on the sandwiches with a spatula. Cover the pan with a lid and let the sandwiches cook until the bottoms are golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes. Gently flip the sandwiches and repeat, until both sides are golden brown.
1 cup soy curls
3 to 4 dried shiitake mushrooms
1⁄2 cup Omma’s Korean BBQ Sauce (see below)
1 scallion, cut into 2- to 3-inch lengths
1⁄4 red onion, julienned
1⁄4 cup chopped green bell pepper
Oil for grilling
1⁄2 tablespoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds
Step 1: Soak the soy curls in water for at least 1 hour. Drain and squeeze out any excess liquid. At the same time, soak the shiitake mushrooms to rehydrate, then chop.
Step 2: In a large zip-top plastic bag or reusable silicone bag, place the soy curls, shiitakes, barbecue sauce, scallions, red onion, and bell pepper. Make sure all the soy curls are submerged in the sauce. Place the bag in the refrigerator and marinate for at least 4 hours or up to 24 hours.
Step 3: Preheat a grill or a grill pan (or a cast-iron skillet). Slightly oil the grates or pan. When the grill is hot, place the marinated soy curls, mushrooms, scallions, onions, and bell pepper on the grill pan or grill topper, basting with the remaining marinade. Cook until the soy curls are slightly charred, about 3 to 4 minutes.
Step 4: Drizzle with the sesame oil and garnish with the sesame seeds before serving.
Omma’s Korean BBQ Sauce Recipe
Makes 3 cups
1⁄2 red onion, cut into chunks
3 scallions, trimmed
8 to 9 cloves garlic, peeled
1 cup soy sauce
1⁄4 cup brown rice syrup (or your preferred sweetener)
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons mirin
1⁄2 cup rough-chopped Korean pear or apple
1⁄2 cup rough-chopped red bell pepper
1 knob fresh ginger
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1⁄4 cup Mushroom Dashi (see below) or water
2 tablespoons potato starch
Step 1: In a high-powered blender, combine the red onion, scallions, garlic, soy sauce, brown rice syrup, rice vinegar, mirin, Korean pear, bell pepper, ginger, sesame oil, and pepper and blend until smooth and frothy.
Step 2: Transfer the marinade to a medium pot and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook the liquid until reduced by about one-third, about 10 minutes.
Step 3: In a small bowl, stir the mushroom dashi into the potato starch to create a slurry. Gradually stir the slurry into the cooking marinade and continue stirring until the sauce thickens.
Step 4: Once the sauce has thickened, remove it from the heat and let it cool (allowing it to thicken a little more). Once cooled, store it in the refrigerator for use in the next several days or freeze it for future use.
Mushroom Dashi Recipe
Makes 4 cups
6 large or 7 medium dried shiitake mushrooms
Step 1: Submerge the dried mushrooms in 4 cups cold filtered water for at least 4 hours at room temperature.
Step 2: Scoop out the reconstituted mushrooms and save them for future use. They are just as good as, if not better than, regular “fresh” mushrooms for soups, stews, stir-fries, and a variety of recipes.
Step 3: Pour the dashi through a fine-mesh sieve or cheesecloth into a storage container. The dashi will keep in the refrigerator for up to 1 week. Freeze for any future use.