Food blogger Joanne Molinaro has shaped her online persona around two concepts that Americans tend to have a lot of preconceived notions about: Korean food and vegan food. Carving out an identity as The Korean Vegan means she's coming up against stereotypes constantly.
"I think a lot of us tend to associate Korean food with meat, like Korean barbecue or grilled pork belly. One way that The Korean Vegan tackles those stereotypes is saying you don't need to have meat to eat authentic Korean food," she told me, her voice as full of warmth and passion as it is in her videos.
"There's this beautiful, thriving Buddhist community and the way they've been eating has been in Korea long before your Korean barbecue joint has been around. I love the fascination with Korean culture that arrives out of people's obsession with K-pop and Korean dramas, but I want you to understand that there's so much more to Korean food than what you see on television. It just really flattens Korean cuisine in a not-good way."
When it comes to the vegan part of things, Molinaro actually had her own biases to overcome. "I had stereotypes about vegan food," she admitted. "I thought it was just quinoa and kale. I was like, 'I'm not white; I can't eat that way!' So that's part of why I started The Korean Vegan, to show people that you don't have to give up your cultural cuisine if you adopt a vegan diet."
Reluctantly going vegan
She was inspired to try it for the first time, back in 2016, for a reason she thinks a lot of people can relate to: her new boyfriend was going vegan and she was worried about what that would mean for their budding relationship. "There are a lot of reasons that underpin my reasons to switch to a plant-based diet, but at the time I was very against it. The first thing I thought of was my favorite kimchi jjigae (a stew made with kimchi, pork and tofu) at my favorite Korean restaurant. I was like, 'You're going to take my pork away from me?'"
So, she reluctantly agreed to a probationary period. "I was like, I'm going to try it for 14 days and if I don't like it, then forget it. That was really important for me because if I felt like I had to be locked in, I probably never would've done it."
Looking back on it now, she said, her resistance was about more than the pork. "When I said no, you can't take my kimchi jjigae away from me, what I was saying to my white boyfriend was, 'You can't take my Koreanness away from me.' I was saying, 'No, you want me to adopt this white diet? F you!' So, I created this vegan diet I needed to have the food that gives me safety, the food my grandparents made."
One of the first things she tried veganizing, however, was her boyfriend's favorite dessert: chocolate cake. "How many women have done that?" she laughed. "Anthony was like, 'This is delicious! You should make more!' And I'm not gonna lie, his encouragement was important. He's the one who came up with The Korean Vegan as the name. He was like, 'You should make a YouTube video!' I'm 100% certain he said that because he wanted me to stay vegan, but it also had an impact."
A soothing social media sensation
Millions of followers and one wedding later, Molinaro has carved out a unique corner for herself on the internet. A storyteller at heart, she produces cooking videos that are immediately recognizable and distinct. She films them with cinematic flair and, while the food looks scrumptious, you never know where her voiceover will take you.
"The Korean Vegan, for much of its existence, has been about so much more than the recipes," she said. "It's creating a safe and empowering environment for people to share their stories and me to share my stories." That includes deeply personal confessions about her own struggles with food, body image, self-harm, mental health and much more.
Molinaro has found that TikTok in particular has helped her establish the kind of supportive, empathetic community she craves. She joined the platform last summer after cultivating a large following on Instagram, without any intention of being a content creator, while the Black Lives Matter protests were happening.
"I noticed there was a groundswell of support for BLM on social media and I was very inspired by these young people and their approach to activism," she said. "I wanted to have a front-row seat to all that stuff, all this powerful storytelling that was happening. So I started to watch and ultimately decided to participate."
Anyone expecting a hands-and-pans, BuzzFeed Tasty-style video is in for a surprise. "I'd get, 'You're a food blogger, stay in your lane,' and I'm just like … no. For the vast majority of people, they understand that my content is not the typical food content. In fact, when I give a purely instructional video, they always do worse; they don't get as much engagement as my typical content."
For Molinaro, the engagement has become a huge responsibility — one she doesn't take lightly. "What I wanted to do (at first) was take the safety that I was trying to provide on Instagram and do that on a more dynamic level on TikTok through video, through this crazy and lovely and beautiful community that I was being introduced to," she said.
Her comments and DMs are now filled with followers who match her vulnerability about their own personal lives. "As I got to know the community better, it became very clear to me that there is a lot of pain and struggle out there and what I wanted to do was make them feel like there was a place on TikTok that they can come to to shed a lot of that weight and their problems," she said. "I do feel responsible because they trust me to be vulnerable with me. So, I'm very deliberate with my content. It weighs on me a lot."
The fallacy of work-life balance
I was surprised to learn that as much as she pours into her content creation, it's actually pretty far down her list of priorities: Molinaro is a full-time lawyer as well as an avid long-distance runner. I asked how on earth she balances it all, now that she's one of TikTok's signature API creators and has a debut cookbook coming out in the fall.
"I have a very strict hierarchy of priorities in my life and it's something that, for as long as I'm a lawyer, will not change," she said. "Family and health come first. After that are my legal clients, they come before anything else I'm doing. Then running, then my Korean Vegan community. So, how I spend my time is really guided by that hierarchy, which means that sometimes I do not get to post as often as I'd like on TikTok.
"I cannot all the time be everything that I want to be. That's the fallacy of the work-life balance; there's no balance in my life. I love creating content. I love interacting with the TikTok community; these are the things that make me happy and make me feel like I'm doing something with my life. I don't get to reach 3 million people on a daily basis (as a lawyer) like I do with The Korean Vegan, sharing messages about joy and heartache and empowerment and the immigrant story."
Molinaro's parents were born in what is now known as North Korea. Her success on social media has been both a source of pride and confusion for them.
"They are curious about it, cautiously happy for me, but my parents are the product of a war-time generation. They were both born around World War II and the dispute called the Korean War, and my father served in Vietnam," she said. "Both my parents have experienced more war and poverty than anyone should in their lifetimes, so they don't see the concept of social media as business. They believe in paychecks, salaried jobs; that's what they believe in as the definition of success. So, trying to educate them about how the world has changed has been a bit of a challenge. We're still working on that."
A love letter to her parents
Her parents may not know what to make of it all, but Molinaro's followers adore what she shares of them. "My TikTok community is in love with my dad!" she laughed. "They can't get enough of him. I think there's a special place in a lot of people's hearts for father-daughter stories."
Her parents are even becoming famous in their own right. "My dad has been so confused about the whole thing, but then he was recognized at the post office. Afterwards he sat me down in the living room and I thought I was in trouble. He was like, someone asked me, 'Are you the Korean Vegan's father?' It was a happy moment for him. I want them to be proud of themselves, I want them to see what beautiful parents they are."
The ultimate expression of appreciation, then, is Molinaro's forthcoming cookbook-memoir, which she considers a love letter to her parents and grandparents. And it provided the perfect opportunity to connect in a deeper way than ever before. Molinaro asked both of her parents to share their life stories and ultimately each presented her with an autobiography of sorts — in the form of a single-spaced Word doc.
"That was the most incredible gift they could ever have given to me," she said, especially from her father, who was diagnosed with prostate cancer. "It absolutely changed my relationship with my dad, completely. I will never see my father the same way again after he shared so many intimate personal moments from his childhood. There's no way I can't think of those stories now when I interact with him now." Already she has noticed the memories changing as time passes. "There's a lot that's getting more and more lost in translation as he gets older. The main message of my cookbook is: Please, please collect the stories of your parents before it's too late. Spend time with your loved ones and collect their stories before they're no longer available to you."
Connecting through cooking
For Molinaro, the experiences of a lifetime can be shared through generations with recipes — even if it isn't always easy getting her mother to, say, give her specific measurements or instructions. So, I asked her what would be the best recipe for a non-vegan like me to try.
"I would want you to try all the foods that would make you be like, 'Oh my god, that's vegan?' My most popular recipe by far is spicy garlic tofu. That's one of those recipes where a lot of people eat it and they're like, 'I did not know I was eating tofu,' or, 'I did not know tofu could taste like this.' The original dish is made with chicken wings that are deep-fried and glazed and in this spicy, garlicky sauce, so I did the same to tofu and I have converted so many tofu-haters with this dish."
I am certainly not a tofu-hater, but I did have some skin in the game: I recently married into a Korean family and was eager to impress. Past efforts to cook Korean food have not exactly resulted in resounding reviews. Funnily enough, the biggest fail was the time I tried to make kimchi jjigae, the first dish Molinaro thought of when she was considering going vegan, because I accidentally made a vegan version, not realizing the standard version has pork. This time would be different — I had a foodie godmother for guidance!
Knowing Molinaro's food, I figured the recipe would be delicious, but I wanted the ultimate verdict from my mother-in-law, Kay. Since she's in Atlanta, Georgia, and I'm in Brooklyn, New York, we decided to cook it at the same time and share our thoughts. We gathered up the same ingredients, got on FaceTime and got to work on a relaxed Sunday evening, comparing notes as we went along.
The recipe calls for three types of pepper, with the caveat that you can leave some out. "That's a lot of peppers," she said bemusedly, side-eyeballing my pan. But I was all in, baby! When it came time to fry the tofu, I sloppily shoved it all around with a spatula while she turned each cube delicately with chopsticks, exactly as Molinaro does. But the recipe is pretty forgiving; we each got gorgeously golden, crispy fried cubes of tofu that then got smothered in a sticky, sweet, spicy, garlicky, heavenly sauce. My husband, who had been napping, wandered out of the bedroom. "That smells really good," he said. It was time to eat.
The call still going with our phones propped up on our respective tables, we dove into what felt like a very special meal, especially since my husband hasn't seen his umma since the start of the pandemic. "This is the most delicious vegan food ever," he declared. Kay agreed. We laughed and cried (from the peppers) and finished every bite. Not five minutes had passed after we hung up before she texted me: "Emily, I really enjoyed the Zoom cooking with you! Let's do it again!" Heart and belly full, I thought Molinaro would be proud.