Joanne Lee Molinaro might not be a household name (yet), but if you’re a food-loving vegan, odds are good you’ve heard of her under her digital nom-de-plume, The Korean Vegan. Every week, her 4 million followers are treated to candid and compelling social media content that combines motivational storytelling with confessional kitchen chat. It’s a delicious mélange that Molinaro transformed into a beautiful cookbook, The Korean Vegan Cookbook: Reflections and Recipes from Omma’s Kitchen.
Besides stunning images of dishes inspired from the Korean culinary diaspora and her own mother and grandmother’s recipes, Molinaro’s hefty tome tells the story of her North Korean immigrant family’s experience, its rituals, and traditions centered on food.
For Korean cuisine novices, Molinaro also devotes a section of her book to explaining key ingredients and how to use and store them, empowering us to build our own pantry inspired by the complex, umami-rich flavors of classic Korean cuisine. Which got me wondering: what other delicious treasures are hiding in Molinaro’s kitchen?
To get the inside scoop, we reached out to Molinaro, and she gave us a tantalizing tour of her refrigerator, leaving us motivated and excited to get cooking. Read on to discover some of the building blocks for healthy vegan Korean food you can make at home, too.
What’s your favorite place to shop for food?
I love my local Korean grocery store, Joongboo Market. I've been going there since I was a little girl, and it's really sort of empowering (in a nerdy way, I guess) to be able to shop there without my mom!
How often do you shop?
I don't get to go to the Korean grocery store as often as I’d like these days, largely due to the pandemic. It's a bit of a hike from where I live, and I often went in conjunction with other things that I was doing in that neighborhood or in the suburbs. Because I'm not doing much outside of my house these days, I don't get out that often. That said, when I do get to go, I'm like a kid in a candy store, every single time. I love going through all the fresh ricecakes from the local bakery or finding new Korean snacks for me to bring home.
Tell me about your favorite condiment.
Hands down, my favorite condiment is soup soy sauce called guk ganjang. I use it in place of salt in all my stews, stir-fry dishes, and rice bowls.
What’s something that people would be surprised to discover in your fridge?
I have a cluster of nameless Mason jars housing all the different sauces I've made over the past several months (like my Omma's BBQ Sauce, my Fishy Sauce, and my Bibimbap Sauce).
What’s the healthiest item in your fridge?
Definitely the kale. Yes, I have resigned myself to being that vegan that really truly loves kale.
How about the least healthy?
JLM: Probably my homemade vegan cheese sauce which I keep in one of my aforementioned Mason jars.
If you opened your fridge right now, what healthy vegan meal could you pull together in 30 minutes that you would feel good about serving to company?
Kimchi Fried Rice. I make it with rice, kimchi, frozen veggies, soy sauce, gochujang, and scallions. Done!
What special food items do you buy when you travel that you can’t find in the US?
Dried jujubes. I bought some from Korea the last time I was there and used them to make date tea.
What dish would you prepare that would transport you back to childhood?
Tteokguk or ricecake soup (the traditional dish for New Year's). I love this dish because it is one of the earlier dishes my mother taught me to make when I started showing an interest in cooking my own food.
You’re headed to that mysterious desert island we keep hearing about, and you can only bring five ingredients from your fridge. What are they?
Broccoli, kale, tofu, JUST Egg, and doenjang (fermented soybean paste)