The Korean Vegan: Joanne Lee Molinaro shares recipes and her family’s immigration story

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When Joanne Lee Molinaro announced she was going vegan, her mother was worried about her getting enough protein and what she would cook for her. The answer? Buchimgae, or Korean pancakes. This version uses perilla leaves — a favorite ingredient of her omma, or grandmother, who grew it in her garden. Photo by Joanne Lee Molinaro.

“We didn't spill our guts during dinner,” writes Joanne Lee Molinaro, the lawyer-turned-TikTok sensation also known as the Korean Vegan. “We filled them.” 

Where many families share their days over a meal, talking was discouraged at Lee Molinaro’s childhood table. Her blog Korean Vegan grew alongside her revelation and understanding of her family's history. Lee Molinaro joins Good Food to discuss her transition to a plant-based diet, merging it with her Korean culinary roots and heritage, and the secret to her vegan ‘fishy sauce.’ 

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

KCRW: When did you turn to a plant based diet?

Joanne Lee Molinaro: “I adopted a plant based diet in 2016. At the very beginning of the year is actually in connection with my then-boyfriend's New Year's resolution, and I quickly followed suit.”

What did your parents first think about it?

“Oh, you know, my mom and my dad, first of all, don't even know what vegan really means. I think when you try to explain the concept of removing animal products from your diet to people who grew up with almost no food, and against the backdrop of several wars, it's very hard for them to process that. And I think, at first, they just assumed I was trying to lose weight, and that it was just another fad diet. But since then, I think that especially having seen what the Korean Vegan has done with the community, they very much respect my decision at this point, and I think they like my food.”

Is veganism rare in Korean culture?

“It is and it isn't. I mean, veganism, as we describe it in the United States, is very rare in Korea. Although it is on the rise. It is now one of the most Googled search terms in South Korea. So it's certainly something that folks are interested in, and you're seeing a lot more Korean celebrities and K-Pop stars adopting a plant-based diet. But at the same time, Korean Buddhist cuisine, which is a cuisine prepared by Korean Buddhist monks and nuns, is largely plant-based and vegan and has been around for over a thousand years. So it's not something as totally exotic as people may think.”

You had a really moving moment with the famed Buddhist nun who's known for her fermentation.

“Yes … she is the Buddhist nun that I got to visit in 2019. And I think that's why I say veganism in the United States, the way that it's defined and practiced here, is not necessarily the way that it's practiced in other countries around the world. ... I told her, ‘I'm vegan,’ and she's like, ‘Okay, like, what does that even mean?’ Really, for her, it's so much just a way of life and how she views the world, which is always to do things with compassion, and to avoid harming as many things as possible, including animals. And so the diet notion of veganism is sort of, I wouldn't say absurd, but it's just not top of mind to her.”

Let's talk about a couple of recipes, so we can hear how you have made adjustments. Let's start with kimchi, because kimchi is a food that gets its flavor from deep fermentation. But also so many recipes that we see and types of kimchi that we experience are made with fish in the mix.

“That's right. Most kimchi, certainly the kimchi that I grew up eating, incorporate not just fish sauce, but oftentimes fermented shrimp paste. So there are definitely animal products in most countries that you're going to see at the grocery store, certainly in the Korean grocery store. So trying to come up with a vegan version of that was challenging, because kimchi is very synonymous in some ways with my Korean identity. So changing it in any real, material way, again, I worried, ‘Oh my god, am I being not Korean by doing this?’ 

At the end of the day, I came up with my own sort of, what I call, ‘fishy sauce.’ So it smells like fish sauce, and it tastes a lot like fish sauce. But it doesn't actually include any fish or shrimp in it. And I use that in place of the regular fish sauce for my kimchi. And I have to say, one of the proudest moments of my life was when my mom tasted this fishy sauce and she's like, ‘This is amazing. How did you make this?; And then when she tried my kimchi and she said, ‘You know what, I think I'm gonna use your recipe from now on.’”

So what is this fishy sauce?

“When you think about the role of fish sauce in kimchi, it does two things, generally. Primarily, it imparts that intense flavor that you speak of. But what it also does is it facilitates fermentation,  because it is already a fermented product, and it doesn't undergo the process to take away that fermenting quality. It continues to ferment whatever vegetable it's added to. So when I created my fishy sauce, I wanted it to do the same things. I wanted to impart intense umami while also facilitating fermentation, which is why I start with soy sauce. I mean, talk about umami — that's really the base of my fishy sauce. And then I added a bunch of other intense flavors, like balsamic ... mushrooms, I added tashima. But together, this combination creates that sort of funkiness that you associate with intense umami, plus the fermentation. I cure a bunch of things in soy sauce, so I knew that would work.”

What is tashima? 

“Tashima is actually dried kelp. So if you go to a Korean grocery store, and you go to the laver aisle, which is like the seaweed aisle, you'll see so many different varieties of dried seaweed. This one is a kelp product. And that looks just like really large, black sheets of dried kelp. And what I like to do is I use that to flavor my broths, and in this case, flavor my fishy sauce.”

Let's talk about your parents’ and grandparents’ journey. Oftentimes it’s the result of war, or famine, or or both. And your family has certainly experienced that.

“Yeah, they certainly did. And I think you're right, there is some reticence about really spending too much time thinking about those stories. I think sometimes we feel burdened by those stories, and we feel hopeless, like ‘What can we do to actually make things better? What can we do to change things for these people? I can't do anything. So I don't even want to really spend too much time thinking about it, because it hurts my heart too much.’

Both my maternal grandparents were both born in what is now known as North Korea, and my father's father fled to North Korea to get out of an arranged marriage, and married his his wife, my grandmother. And so both my parents were born in what is now known as North Korea, and the amount of war and heartache and brutality that became part of their lives is something that they almost took for granted, because it happened every single day for so much of their lives. [It] is a story that maybe some people don't want to hear or push away from. But what I try to do is to show them that as much heartache as there is, there is also triumph, and there is also power. And that sort of triumph and power can bleed into you as you consume not just the food that comes out of these stories, but the stories themselves.”

It's a really incredible reminder of the simple power of food as sustenance and why it's so important to give it respect, because so many go without.

“I could not have said it better. I think that sharing and consuming food is one of the most vulnerable things you could ever do … because it's the one thing that we really, really need to survive. And it isn't until you've been without it for extended periods of time that you realize how powerful food can be and [how] the act of sharing and consuming it can be when it comes to building trust between two people.”

Let's metaphorically eat some food now. Let's talk about perilla leaf, which is one of the greatest flavors ever, and it's so beautiful. You use it in a couple of different things. One of the most beautiful photographs, of many beautiful photographs in your book, is a pancake in which the perilla leaf looks like it's placed on top before it's finished. And I understand that your grandmother has a recipe for pickled perilla leaf?

“I love that recipe so much. I've been eating it, like I had it yesterday for dinner. ... I wrapped it around a big chunk of rice and I thought of my grandma, because she used to do that all the time. And just how freaking delicious it is. ... She came from Seoul, and she was a farmer. And anytime you walked into our backyard, there was always something growing. And I remember, in the summertime, I'd walk back there and there would just be this kind of fleet of beautiful, tall perilla plants. And she'd always send me back there with a basket and say, ‘Hey, collect the biggest ones for dinner today.’ And I remember, as a little girl, these plants were taller than I was. And I'd wander through them and pretend that I was in this faraway, beautiful, imaginary land until I could hear [grandmother’s] voice being like, ‘Okay, Joanne, come back. I need the perilla leaves.’ It was always so fun to pick them, but you're right, that smell. It brings me right back to those moments when I was a little girl.”

Kkenip Buchimgae
(깻잎 부침개 • Perilla Leaf and Scallion Pancakes)  
Makes 12-16 Medium Pancakes 
DIFFICULTY: Easy ALLERGENS: GFO,NF  

When I announced to my family that I was going vegan, my mother was especially worried. She wondered whether I would get enough protein (surprise!), if this was a symptom of my never-ending quest to be “skinny” (she was onto something there . . .), and how I could possibly keep up with my running eating nothing but vegetables. But mostly, she was panicked about what the heck she would cook for me when I came over.  

She soon discovered how easy it was to make buchimgae or pancakes typically made with seafood, without the shrimp or oysters. Simply add water to the flour mix and a bunch of vegetables for quick batter. Omma makes a huge batch whenever we come over and saves some in the freezer for unannounced visits. I now do the same for myself, you know, for those unannounced cravings that occur around 10:17 p.m.  

Ingredients 

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour (see note) 
  • 1⁄2 cup potato starch 
  • 1⁄2 tablespoon garlic powder 
  • 1⁄2 tablespoon onion powder 
  • 1 teaspoon salt 
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 
  • 1⁄2 Korean squash or regular zucchini, julienned 
  • 1 carrot, julienned 
  • 4 to 5 perilla leaves, julienned 
  • 11⁄2 cups ice cold water 
  • 12 to 16 small perilla leaves, whole 
  • 4 to 5 scallions, julienned 
  • Vegetable oil, for frying 
  • Spicy Soy Sauce Dressing for serving (recipe below) 

 Instructions

  1. In a large bowl, combine the flour, potato starch, garlic powder, onion powder, salt, pepper, squash, carrot, and julienned perilla leaves. Do not add the whole perilla leaves or scallions.
  2. Add the cold water to the bowl and stir. You should have a fairly thick and rough batter, but if it’s too thick to work with, add more of ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until you arrive at a consistency that’s thicker than regular pancake batter but not as thick as biscuit batter.
  3. In a nonstick skillet, heat enough oil to coat the pan over medium-high heat. Before pouring in any batter, throw a few scallions onto the pan, as well as one whole perilla leaf. Then pour 1 ladle (about 1⁄4 cup) of batter over the top of the scallions and perilla leaf, so that they are completely covered.
  4. Cook for about 3 minutes. Flip the pancake and cook until both sides are evenly browned, an additional 2 minutes. Repeat to make more pancakes.
  5. Serve with the spicy dressing.  

*Gluten-free flours work very well with this recipe; however, because of the additional moisture in the batter often caused by gluten-free flours, fry the pancakes at a lower temperature so they have more time to “dry out” without burning.   

Spicy Soy Sauce Dressing
DIFFICULTY: Easy ALLERGENS: GFO,NF  

There is nothing more satisfying than coming home after a long day of work and whipping up a dish that looks and tastes like you’ve been slaving away in your kitchen all afternoon. This insanely flavorful dressing is the magic potion that makes it possible. It only takes 15 minutes to put together, and it lasts in the refrigerator for weeks. Not only can you use this dressing as a dipping sauce for your favorite savory dishes, you can pour a little bit over beans, vegetables, or even a bowl of rice, or use it to braise tofu. You’ll have yourself something that looks and tastes fancy, but could not be simpler.  

Ingredients 

  • 1 cup soy sauce 
  • 2 tablespoons gochugaru   
  • 3 to 4 cloves garlic, minced 
  • 2 scallions, chopped 
  • 1⁄4 cup finely diced red onion 
  • 1 shishito pepper or jalapeño, sliced 
  • 1 Fresno pepper, sliced 
  • 2 tablespoons brown rice syrup or maple syrup 
  • 1 tablespoon rice vinegar 
  • 1 tablespoon mirin 
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon ground turmeric  

 Instructions 

  1. In a small bowl, whisk the soy sauce, gochugaru, garlic, scallions, red onion, shishito pepper, Fresno pepper, brown rice syrup, rice vinegar, mirin, black pepper, and turmeric together.
  2. Store in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.
  3. Shake well before serving.  


TikTok sensation Joanne Lee Molinaro, aka the Korean Vegan, modernizes traditional Korean recipes for a plant-based palate, while simultaneously sharing her family’s personal history, in her first book. Photo courtesy of Avery.

Credits

Host:

Evan Kleiman