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For 'The Korean Vegan' Joanne Lee Molinaro, food is all about connecting with loved ones

Joanne Lee Molinaro. (Courtesy)
Joanne Lee Molinaro. (Courtesy)

Editor’s note: This segment was rebroadcasted on Dec. 28, 2022. Find that audio here.

When Joanne Lee Molinaro first adopted a vegan diet, she didn’t know the long history of plant-based cuisine in Korean culture.

Now, Lee Molinaro takes millions of followers on culinary journeys through her family’s rich history on her TikTok and blog. And her debut cookbook “The Korean Vegan Cookbook: Reflections and Recipes from Omma’s Kitchen” is nominated for a James Beard Award.

Korean food goes far beyond barbequed meats and fried chicken: On a visit to South Korea in 2019, Lee Molinaro learned that the country’s large Buddhist population eats a mostly plant-based diet.

“I actually visited a Buddhist temple and I spoke with one of the nuns,” Lee Molinaro says. “And she explained to me very nicely [that] plant-based food has been around a lot longer than Korean barbecue, than even the word veganism.”

While writing her cookbook, Lee Molinaro learned some hidden history about her family, such as that both her parents were born in North Korea. For her birthday, she asked her parents — who never know what to get her — to write down their life stories.

“Now, I not only have their stories in my head and in my heart, I have a document that I can refer back to for the rest of my life,” she says.

While working full-time as a partnered lawyer, Lee Molinaro started writing a blog when she first went plant-based as a way to stay motivated and channel her creativity. She spent time in the break from going into her office during the COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020 pursuing her passion for food.

“I started sharing my recipes, and then shortly thereafter I started sharing the stories about my parents,” she says. “It turned into a book deal, it turned into a TikTok and now a full blown career.”

Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

Book excerpt: ‘The Korean Vegan’

By Joanne Lee Molinaro

Cucumber Kimchi. (Courtesy)

Bulgogi Wasabi Melt.(Courtesy)

Kimbap. (Courtesy)


Excerpted from Korean Vegan Copyright © 2021by Joanne Lee Molinaro. Published by Avery, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.