Joanne Lee Molinaro, 43, started using social media to share deeply personal stories about her family for one reason: to change the way Americans view immigrants in this country. The child of North Korean parents, Molinaro felt angry and hopeless about the increasingly hostile rhetoric towards immigrants in the U.S. over the past few years. So in 2018, she began posting stories about her family on Instagram, hoping to spark compassion in others. At the time, Molinaro already had a vegan food-based Instagram account with more than 10,000 followers. And she figured if her followers loved her food, they might be open to learning about her experiences as a Korean American. Molinaro steadily gained more fans, but her popularity exploded when she started posting videos that are equal parts story time and cooking tutorial. In one, Molinaro shares the time her grandparents nearly murdered her mom as a baby—all while making s’mores. Now Molinaro has a cookbook, three million TikTok followers, and even more appreciation for Korean food. Below, read Molinaro’s story about how becoming “The Korean Vegan” deepened her relationship with her family and her culture, as told to SELF’s associate health director Melissa Matthews.
I started a relationship with my now husband, Anthony, in 2014. When Anthony decided to go vegan in 2016, I worried I wouldn’t be able to cook for him anymore, which is one way I like to show my love. I wasn’t vegan myself; in fact, I had never heard of a Korean person who was vegan at the time, and I was worried that I would have to cut out the food I grew up eating with my family if I joined him. Korean cuisine has plenty of veggie-centric food, but many dishes include seafood and ingredients like fish sauce.
Ultimately, I decided to give it a try but thought, If I’m going to do this, I have to figure out a way to Koreanize vegan food. At the time, I knew how to cook one or two Korean dishes that my mom taught me, but I never spent a lot of time learning to cook Korean food myself. Now, I had to be proactive if I was going to be able to continue enjoying the traditional foods my family has always eaten while also sticking to being vegan. I started by just learning about Korean food and then thought of ways to make them vegan. I spent a lot of time in my mom’s kitchen asking her, “How do you make this? Why did you use that?” I never felt pressured to make everything taste exactly the same as the original version because I knew it wouldn’t be the same. My goal was to create something that tasted delicious and reminded me a whole heck of a lot of Korean dishes.
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