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'The Korean Vegan' cookbook is an immigrant story told through food


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: During this holiday season, as people spend more time in the kitchen, we look at a twist in cuisine that is taking social media by storm.

Jeffrey Brown explores the magic behind The Korean Vegan, as part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Joanne Lee Molinaro, Author, "The Korean Vegan": This is my grandmother, who taught me how to tie my shoes, who taught me how to swing while standing up, who taught me this very kimbap recipe I'm making right now.

Jeffrey Brown: It's not your typical cooking tutorial. Joanne Lee Molinaro, AKA, The Korean Vegan, does offer up exquisite dishes. But her popular specialty, story time videos that have attracted nearly four million followers on social media.

Joanne Lee Molinaro: I thought it was a great vehicle to sort of share a little bit of insight in what I hope is a very palatable way, if you will, about the immigrant story in the United States, because I think it is a beautiful story. And I think it's one that hopefully can be celebrated.

Jeffrey Brown: Molinaro's stories tell of her grandmother's harrowing escape with her infant son, Joanne's father, from what would soon become North Korea.

Joanne Lee Molinaro: My mom made it very clear to me that she was embarrassed about certain aspects of our culture.

Jeffrey Brown: And of her own experience growing up in America, where her family's culture and food weren't always accepted.

We joined her for shopping at a Manhattan H Mart, a Korean grocery chain. She's not a trained chef. She is an attorney, working full-time until very recently for a high-powered Chicago firm.

But Joanne Lee's life changed when she met and married Anthony Molinaro, who convinced her to go vegan in 2016. She decided to adapt the food she'd grown up with. And social media, Instagram and then TikTok, became her way to reach people with her new passion.

Joanne Lee Molinaro: I did see how social media could be used to bring people together, and that's really the point of The Korean Vegan, is bringing people together, bringing families together, bringing colleagues together, friends together over some really delicious food.

Jeffrey Brown: Now she's collected her stories and recipes into her first cookbook, "The Korean vegan: Reflections and Recipes from Omma's" -- or mom's -- "Kitchen," all plant-based. But even she was uncertain in the beginning.

Joanne Lee Molinaro: I was very skeptical. Can you even be vegan and Korean at the same time?

Jeffrey Brown: Yes, it's a real question, right?

Joanne Lee Molinaro: Yes.

If I can't eat Korean food and be plant-based at the same time, then it's not a choice. So, the question that I set out to answer when I started cooking more was, well, can -- is there a way to adjust the ingredients, the recipes, tweak them here and there, so they still taste like the food I grew up eating, but don't have any animal products, and it is a little bit healthier?

And that's really how it all started.

So, I'm chopping up some carrots right now to add to our tteokbokki, which is...

Jeffrey Brown: We got a demonstration and taste of what it became.

Joanne Lee Molinaro: So, tteok means rice cake. That's right here.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

And bokki is kind of a reference to bokk-eun, which means fried. A little bit of gochugaru, which is Korean pepper powder. We have got gochujang, which is the main sauce that you're going to use for this particular sauce. So, we have got here just a lot of vegetables and some zucchini. We also have the aromatics, some onions and some garlic.

Jeffrey Brown: Then things came together quickly.

Joanne Lee Molinaro: So, I have made you a bowl, which has the rice, right, because every Korean meal starts with rice. And then we have some braised potatoes, or gamja jorim. We have some dubu jeon, which is like tofu pancakes.

And then we have the star dish that you helped me prepare.

Jeffrey Brown: That I -- of course.

Joanne Lee Molinaro: Expertly helped me prepare.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes, I stared intently while you made it.

Joanne Lee Molinaro: Yes. And that's why it's going to taste so good.

Jeffrey Brown: The rice cake, with spice. We did a good job.

Joanne Lee Molinaro: You did an excellent job. It turned out perfect.

Jeffrey Brown: And in the family history, there's more.

Like many immigrant families, the Lees didn't speak much of the past, and only as an adult did Molinaro learn some of what her parents had experienced as children in the aftermath of the Korean War, as when her mother one day exclaimed that her favorite food is baked sweet potato, because it had sustained her as a refugee living in South Korea.

Joanne Lee Molinaro: I was like, I have literally never heard you say the word refugee in my life before. What do you mean you were one?

She said: "Oh, I was born in North Korea." What?


Jeffrey Brown: What's the larger story that you're telling us through these videos?

Joanne Lee Molinaro: I really wanted to honor my parents through these stories.

That is, I think, like my heart's passion is sharing the stories of my mom and dad and making them feel like their stories matter. These are stories that I think are so beautiful. But I also think they're stories that show everyone, no matter what color you are, how old you are, what your background is or what your food looks or smells like, that there are some things that we all share in common.

The more hate crimes that are prosecuted and result in conviction, the harder it becomes for lawmakers to ignore the underlying cause of hate crimes.

Jeffrey Brown: She's also ready and willing to mix it up, pushing back hard when she sees anything smacking of bias against Koreans or Asian Americans generally.

Joanne Lee Molinaro: I still feel that some people look at me, they look at my food, they look at my hair color, they look at the shape of my eyes and say, foreigner, she's not American.

You know, I have been told so many times, go back home to where you came from.

Well, that's Chicago, Illinois.


Joanne Lee Molinaro: I was born and raised there.

So, there is that sort of thing that I still have to contend with, I feel like. And on the other side of that is this mainstream acceptance of "Squid Game." Everybody's talking about "Squid Game," the Korean drama.

Jeffrey Brown: Of course, yes.

Joanne Lee Molinaro: I love that. I love that people are opening their hearts and their minds and their palates to things that, like I said, might be outside of their normal experience.

I think what I'm trying to convey is, I am American. These are the foods that I eat. I spoke Korean when I was growing up with my grandmother. I spoke English when I started going to school. This is very everyday life in a Korean-American household. And while it may seem a little different, it's still just as American as anything else.

Jeffrey Brown: You're saying, this is an American food.

Joanne Lee Molinaro: For me, it is, because I'm Korean-American, and I made this food, and this is what we ate in America.


Jeffrey Brown: In Chicago, Illinois.

Joanne Lee Molinaro: In Chicago, Illinois.

Jeffrey Brown: And now with a Korean, vegan twist.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

Judy Woodruff: And I'm hungry after looking at all that great food.

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