In a less beautiful world, Joanne Lee Molinaro, a.k.a. The Korean Vegan, would command a tiny niche on the internet. In reality, Molinaro has a TikTok following of 2.7 million, who throng to hear her soft voice tell hard stories over cozy Korean cooking. Her stunning new book, The Korean Vegan Cookbook: Reflections and Recipes From Omma’s Kitchen, is already a best seller.
Korean cuisine and plant-based eating: not an obvious combination. But everything about The Korean Vegan is an unexpected delight. Instead of talking about chopping or frying technique throughout her videos, Molinaro tells exceptionally intimate stories, often about her family. Cooking is her side gig—the rest of the time, she’s a trial lawyer. And she doesn’t stick to one topic. She talks about long-distance running, body image, racism, and childhood.
These videos are hypnotic and disarming. For a moment you don’t know what you’re watching, and then it crystallizes—you are in someone’s kitchen, and you are hearing their story. The Korean Vegan came together like unlikely ingredients that combine to make a great dish. “I started cooking for very basic reasons: I wanted to impress my boyfriend, now husband,” Molinaro says with a laugh. “I was like, ‘He likes to eat food, I’m gonna make him a risotto!’” After she went vegan, cooking for herself became a necessity. And she was already a good talker. “You’d be surprised by how much storytelling trial lawyers have to do,” she says.
Then, during the 2016 election, when public displays of racism and hatred of immigrants surged, Molinaro felt moved to speak in a new way. “I wanted to open people up to the possibility that there were a lot of areas in which they could relate to me, to my family, and to my parents,” she says. “I think that that is the beginning of empathy and compassion for the immigrant story.” And as a lawyer, she knows that “the best evidence is the kind that you see firsthand.” In her videos Molinaro litigates immigrants’ humanity by sharing of herself, by making herself vulnerable.
For Glamour‘s That Thing I Always Cook, Molinaro contributed her best holiday recipe. “The problem with pecan pie for my family is that they’re always complaining that it’s too sweet,” she says. “I was like, ‘What can I do to not just cut back on the sweetness but provide them with a flavor that their tongues are immediately going to understand?’” She decided add paht, or red bean paste, a popular ingredient in Korean sweets.
“It was so perfect, a custard-like texture and then you’ve got the wonderful crunchiness of the candied pecans,” she says. “If you just buy the premade crust, it takes like five minutes to prepare. You throw it in the oven, forget about it for an hour, and it comes out and you’re like, ‘Oh my god, I’m the Barefoot Contessa.’” Her parents, aunts, uncles, young cousins—they were all obsessed with the pie. “And that’s when I knew I had the perfect recipe,” says Molinaro. “Because it married the Koreanness in me and the Americanness in me, but it also really brought my entire family together, celebrating this one dish.”
“The Korean Vegan Cookbook” by Joanne Lee Molinaro
The Korean Vegan’s Pecan Paht (피칸팥파이 • Sweet Red Bean) Pie
1½ cups (210 g) all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt
⅔ cup (152 g) cold vegan butter, cut into ½-inch cubes
3–4 Tbsp. ice water
Filling and topping:
¾ cup (300g) brown rice syrup
6 Tbsp. soy or oat milk