The Korean Vegan hopes her 60-second recipes will make you less racist

Salon spoke to Joanne Molinaro about Trump as an inspiration, her most popular recipe, and getting through 2020

Published September 28, 2020 6:00PM (EDT)

Soondooboo kimchi chigae / The Korean Vegan Joanne Molinaro (The Korean Vegan / Geoff Martin Photography)
Soondooboo kimchi chigae / The Korean Vegan Joanne Molinaro (The Korean Vegan / Geoff Martin Photography)

Joanne Molinaro, known as The Korean Vegan, had an unexpected inspiration for sharing her plant-based adaptations of traditional Korean recipes.

"The reason I started telling my stories was because I didn't know what else to do when Donald Trump got elected," Molinaro told Salon in an interview. "I was, like, traumatized. And I felt like I was living in a country that I didn't recognize anymore. I couldn't believe that there were so many people who were okay with racism." 

The rhetoric of the 2016 election galvanized many, pushing people like Molinaro across the political strata to be louder and take action for their causes. In the months that followed the inauguration, anti-immigrant action and travel restrictions pushed masses of people in cities across the U.S. to organize and protest. 

"I'm an attorney – all the lawyers were going to the airport to offer pro bono services to people who are having problems with their visas," she explained. "And I was like, 'Is that what I'm supposed to do? Should I go to the march, should I start protesting? Am I supposed to start writing angry Facebook status posts? That's what everybody else is doing.'"

She'd previously turned to blogging as a way to codify her plant-based lifestyle and Korean identity, sharing recipes that adjusted traditional dishes like buchimgae and kimchi jjigae, as well as pasta, bread, and pastries. She started sharing her family stories with the idea that joining food and painful stories might generate some understanding or compassion across divides, fighting against anti-immigrant sentiments that she took personally. 

This year, while most people were self-isolating due to the continuing spread of coronavirus, Molinaro took the leap to the video space where many people were spending their downtime. When she joined TikTok in late July, each of the simple recipe videos she shared included an accompanying family story, all less than 60 seconds.

The jump has grown Molinaro's audience exponentially. Shortly after joining the platform, Molinaro's videos drew the attention of celebrities like Chrissy Teigen, Patricia Arquette and Yashar Ali, who then shared them on social media. In the weeks since, her TIkTok audience has grown from a few followers to half a million. Her Instagram has nearly doubled from 70K to 133K. And she's also signed a cookbook deal with Penguin Random House.

Through her platform, she's shared stories of her mother's immigration to America, her grandmother's escape from North Korea, her relationship with her body, interracial dating, and more. As Molinaro's audience continues to grow, she, too, has grown to expand her storytelling for the moment, especially as calls for racial justice and systemic change continue since protests began again earlier this year.

She spoke to Salon by phone to discuss her food stories, their impact, and how she's changed to respond to this year's curveballs. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

It sounds like for you the idea of family stories is very closely tied to food, even if they're not food stories.

One hundred percent. 

The reason I started sharing stories about my family was because built into those stories was that commonness. "I'm going to show you a beautiful picture of this bibimbap that I'm making. And I'll also tell you how to make the bibimbap. But in the meantime, while you're enjoying this recipe, just like you would if you were at my house and I put a course of bibimbap in front of you, we're going to engage in some conversation. We're going to engage in some storytelling. We're going to engage in some sharing." That's how intimacy is created. And so I decided to share stories that I felt would resonate on a very human level – like when I went to kindergarten and my grandma packed me the wrong lunch and I felt totally out of place. Who hasn't ever felt out of place somewhere? Everyone feels that way. 

But what I added to it was this understanding [that] the reason I felt out of place is because my parents were immigrants. And they didn't understand what it was like to not have a ham sandwich for lunch and have kkaennip for lunch. 

Or I tell the story about my mom, when she came here for nursing school and didn't have a lot of money and had no idea what to do. I think a lot of people probably can relate to that, especially as young college grads are like, "I don't know what to do. I have college loans, I have school debt, I don't know how to get a job, I don't know what to do." It's very scary. That's a very relatable feeling. But then I added in the layer [of] she couldn't speak English. And she had a family waiting for her in Korea that was counting on her. They gave her all the monies that they had, and they were counting on her. 

So what I was trying to do was connect with people using these very fundamental building blocks. But then while I had their attention, educate them about the immigrant experience, with the idea that the next time they saw the news, and they saw children in cages, and they saw Donald Trump talking about a wall, or they saw something else about a ridiculous immigration policy – whether unconsciously or consciously – the stories that I was sharing would sort of like stick around in their head and linger. And maybe that would create just the tiniest crack of compassion for the immigrant experience.

How did people respond to you?

I'll never forget this one DM that I received on Instagram. She's like, "Hey, I'm a white woman from Alabama. I'm in law enforcement. And I have nothing in common with you in your background. But I just want to say that a lot of the things that you share about you and your family and some of the struggles that you've been through, they really mean a lot to me and I just wanted to let you know."

And that message was so important to me, because it meant that – I don't know, she's probably still gonna vote for Donald Trump. I have no idea, maybe she didn't. But to me, I was like, "Alright, I made a connection with somebody that I probably wouldn't have if I just stuck to 'tablespoon of gochujang, tablespoon of soy sauce and a little bit of rice.'" That meant a lot to me. 

Since I've transitioned into more of the videos that I've been doing over the past couple of months, those types of messages have increased exponentially. That has been very gratifying to me on a personal level. It took a lot of the sting from 2016. 

They're really simple cooking videos, you don't even have to explain what you're doing and how to do it. Why are people enjoying that format? Some of your videos have millions of views.

There's some people who are like, "This food looks so good." And there have been a lot of people who've actually tried the recipes . . . I get a lot of comments like, "I didn't even know this is vegan. I just thought it looked good." So that's exciting on a totally different level. 

But I think that what the stories, kind of underlying each of these videos, does is it connects with people. And I think right now, with what's been going on in our country, what's going on in the world with the global pandemic, I can't think of a time in my lifetime where humans are [more] in need of some kind of healing. And I think that that's where this has been resonating with people on that level – we're all anxious. We're all lonely, we're isolated. We have no idea what the future is going to look like in every landscape: politically, financially, economically, even climate-change wise. We don't know. 

And I think that would be stories do is, in some ways, it transports them because a lot of them take place back in the '40s when my parents were escaping North Korea and stuff like that. So it totally removes them on that level. But then it connects with them because they understand that anxiety. You know, they really get it. They understand the concept of loss, because a lot of them are going through that right now. And I think they just need to feel like, "Okay, I'm not alone. There's somebody else out there who feels the same thing. And oh, by the way, I need to eat this thing." That was amazing.

What has been your most popular story?

Right now, the most successful story is the one about my dad and my divorce . . .That was the story that I shared while making my kkampoong dubu, which also happens to be my most popular recipe. And people definitely related to it. Whether it was with women who were themselves in an emotionally abusive relationship, or whether it was women who had tough relationships with their dad, or whether it was immigrant children who also felt like, "My father is maybe not that affectionate, but I know he loves me." There's so many different ways that people kind of connected to that story, which meant that there were a lot of touchpoints in that story. While also sharing a recipe that I love and that I enjoy eating a lot.

I saw your video addressing people crying to your videos. I've cried while watching your videos. Why do you think people are connecting to you emotionally?

I think because they trust me and they feel safe with me, I think we instinctively do not feel safe around people who are unwilling to bare themselves, who are so guarded and closed off. 

I'm like an open book, I bare everything out there. I bear my emotions, I bare my anxieties, I bare my joys, I do my recipes, I bare my face. I don't have very much to hide here. And I think because of that people feel like, "I feel safe with this person. I don't know who this person is. But I feel like I can trust her. Because she's not really hiding anything or holding anything back. And that means that maybe I can share a little bit with her as well."

Do you have any insights into how people are coping right now?

I think people are coping through distraction. A lot of it is distraction. And that's very understandable. Korean dramas, that's like my big distraction . . . We're all grasping for something that will take us away, however temporarily, from our current realities. So I think there's a lot of that going on. I think cooking is also another large way that people are coping. And I can relate to that. Because when I'm stressed I go straight to my kitchen, and I bake some bread or I make a dish that I like. And before I know it, three hours have passed and I haven't thought about the thing that was making me crazy. 

And I think that when we engage with other people, when we go on social media, when we channel our frustration and our anxiety into the world. I think that at some level, it's like trying to get past that very internal monologue that you're having, where you're constantly just by yourself thinking about everything that's happening with a global pandemic, with politics, with BLM, with the violence out there, all of the things that are happening and the complete lack of certainty. If we open ourselves a little bit and engage with other people, connect with other people, then there's actually a sense of maybe moving forward and doing something, being effective in some small way. 

As we're in quarantine, it is a very different situation with xenophobia and Black Lives Matter and everything, than even in 2016. Do you feel like your approach has changed for the moment?

Yes, it absolutely has. Because I was not as familiar with the BLM movement, and what that really meant in 2016 . . .  In 2016, it was much more just about me, and sharing my stories and getting my narrative out there . . . In the past four or five months, what I've learned is however much I felt betrayed in 2016, I have to remember that my experience is unique from, and probably in some ways better than, the experience of Black Americans.

That was very much an education, and since George Floyd's murder, [I've been] forcing myself to read a lot of the literature, to watch a lot of movies. I was reading law review articles on police defunding and the 14th Amendment. And really coming to grips with that certainly changed my approach. Maybe not the concepts, or even the fundamentals, underlying my storytelling – it's still about healing, and it's still about building bridges, and it's still about connections and compassion. But it certainly has influenced the language that I use to convey my stories to make sure that I'm being more sensitive to everyone.

And the way that I've seen it particularly affect my storytelling is related to my veganism. I used to think, "I'm just right. I'm better. I don't want to kill animals. I think this is right for the environment. I think that the plant-based diet is the best way to eat for your body." I was very much one of those kinds of vegans.

And then I started doing a lot of research on food deserts, food insecurity. And then that, of course, led into eating disorders and food insecurity in that way . . .  I feel like the most effective way I can be an ambassador for the kind of compassionate lifestyle that I want to leave live is to lead by example, and be compassionate to humans. If you cannot afford to eat kale salad every day and a vegan diet because of where you live, or because you don't know where your next meal is gonna come from, I'm not the kind of person who's in any way equipped to judge you. I was definitely not like that before. And that is something very new.

By Michelle Eigenheer

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Interview Joanne Molinaro Korean Food The Korean Vegan Vegan