‘Korean Vegan,’ one of the best cookbooks of the year, is big on flavor and comfort
Joanne Lee Molinaro’s cookbook is an extension of her poetic and personal social media presence.
When I first encountered Joanne Lee Molinaro’s cooking videos, I didn’t realize she was making food. Tucked between one TikTok dance and an arresting drag queen makeup tutorial, her audio stopped me in my tracks before I even noticed her cooking.
Gorgeous food videos are almost a dime a dozen, and Molinaro’s sumptuous and romantic TikTok posts are no exception. Think moody lighting catching every wisp of steam, or close-ups of spoons and chopsticks stirring rice or omelets or bowls of noodles, each perfectly imperfect crack or texture exposed. In many cases, Molinaro doesn’t even offer a recipe, nary a measurement. Instead, Molinaro’s gentle and confident voiceover guides viewers through a 60-second story from her life as a daughter of immigrants, a lawyer, cook, and now cookbook author. The food? Stunning, but not the point.
In many ways, Molinaro’s The Korean Vegan Cookbook is an extension of her poetic and personal social media presence. An exploration of popular and less-traveled dishes from the Korean gastronomical lexicon, it’s a debut cookbook that I have not been able to put down.
Molinaro’s lyrical stories about her family’s immigrant experience — full of family photos and with gorgeous, aesthetic photography — gained her millions of TikTok followers over the last year, as people found her on that platform. Her vulnerability and empathy translate to the page, like when she describes her suburban upbringing: “... at the far end of the yard was my grandmother’s pride and joy: dozens of tall, graceful stalks of perilla leaves that turn their heart-shaped faces to the sun like a troupe of ballerinas.” Throughout the book, she uses her adapted vegan recipes as a bridge to her heritage.
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Molinaro started a food blog in 2016 “with an eye toward sharing vegan versions of Korean recipes while preserving the details that sometimes get stripped in the rush to bring Korean recipes to the masses.” She writes early in her book that “veganism remains extremely rare in Korean culture ... I was terrified that going vegan meant losing my ‘Korean-ness.’”
Molinaro cleverly sidesteps non-vegan Korean ingredients by offering easy-to-make versions at home in any international pantry, like an umami-packed “fishy sauce” that employs mushrooms among other flavorful ingredients, or a rich Korean barbecue sauce that does double-duty as a marinade or stir-fry sauce. A whole chapter on banchan, the bevy of Korean side dishes that are the delightful workhorses of any meal, is stacked with varied, flavorful dishes like dooboo jeon (tofu cakes), braised lion’s mane mushrooms, and simply roasted-and-glazed onions.
Some standouts include modern takes on non-Korean dishes, like a truly spicy “angry penne pasta,” an inspired riff on Italian pasta arrabiata that employs gochujang and gochugaru, Korean red pepper paste and flakes, respectively.
The deceptively simple dooboo kimchi, a modestly prepared dish of boiled tofu with a kimchi mix, has proved to be a regular mainstay in my home — it’s the kind of comforting and quick weeknight meal that I love to assemble in under 20 minutes. It is deeply satisfying sustenance in a humble package.
As the nights get longer and colder, there are recipes I’ve earmarked for precisely that purpose, like midnight-black jjajangmyun, a dish of noodles lacquered in a glossy black bean sauce made famous by the film Parasite, and gamja tang, a fortifying potato stew.
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I am not vegan, not by a long shot, but you don’t have to be to enjoy the earthy, robust meals in this book.
Even as Molinaro recounts her stories, the flavors I’ve encountered in Korean Vegan transport me to another time in my own life: From middle school through high school, my brothers and I would join our childhood friends, who were Korean, for weekly Bible study at their church. Invariably, the most exciting part of those evenings would be fellowship with the other kids and elders, feasting on plates of bulgogi or omelets, rice, mandoo, kimchi of all varieties.
Cooking through this book and tasting the round heat of gochujang or the fermented tang of kimchi remind me of a simpler time, of eating not my grandparents’ cooking but that of another’s, and the spirit in which we broke bread and shared food. There’s connection in these recipes. Writes Molinaro: “What I’ve learned by collecting and sharing these recipes is that what really matters isn’t whether the food tastes exactly the way your grandmother made it but how it makes you feel ... They remind me of my mother’s perseverance, my father’s laughter. They remind me of home.”
Buy The Korean Vegan Cookbook on bookshop.org | Borrow it from the Free Library
In The Korean Vegan Cookbook, Joanne Lee Molinaro offers readers a vegan version of the ubiquitous Korean staple, baechu kimchi, made with Napa cabbage and fermented at home. The process may be intimidating for some readers, and when you don’t want to wait a week for quality kimchi but instead need a fast meal, subbing in store-bought vegan products like Mother In Law’s Kimchi or Mama O’s are available in a pinch, online and in grocery stores. Gochujang and gochugaru (Korean red pepper paste and flakes, respectively) are also commonly available in most grocery stores now.
1 16-ounce block medium-firm tofu
1½ tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 large trumpet mushrooms, sliced into ⅛-inch-thick pieces
½ tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon sesame oil
½ large onion, julienned
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 cups kimchi, roughly chopped
¼ cup plus 1 tablespoon spicy gochujang dressing (below)
1 scallion, chopped
1 Korean green chili, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
¼ cup gochujang
1 teaspoon yellow mustard
1 tablespoon mirin
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1 tablespoon soy sauce
Make the gochujang dressing: In a small bowl, whisk together all of the ingredients. Add 1 tablespoon of water and continue to stir. The sauce should be the consistency of salad dressing. If it is too thick, add another tablespoon of water to thin it out. Gochujang dressing can be stored in a cover container in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.
In a small pot, bring 4 cups of water to a boil over high heat. Add the whole block of tofu gently to the pot. Cook the tofu for 8 to 9 minutes.
In a large skillet, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the sliced mushrooms in a single layer and cook until both sides are evenly browned, 7 to 8 minutes. Add a pinch of salt and remove the mushrooms from the pan and set aside. Do not cover the mushrooms. Reserve the pan.
Remove the tofu from the boiling water and gently slice the block in half. If the center is still cool to the touch, place both halves back into the boiling water for 2 more minutes. When the tofu is completely cooked, remove from water and pat dry with a clean kitchen or paper towel. Slice the tofu into ⅓-inch-thick pieces. Set aside.
Set the reserved pan used to cook the mushrooms over medium heat. Add ½ tablespoon of sesame oil and the remaining ½ tablespoon olive oil to the pan. When the oil is hot, add the onion and garlic and cook until the onions turn translucent and the garlic starts to brown, about 2 minutes.
Add the kimchi and mushrooms to the pan and saute all the contents until the kimchi starts to brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Add ¼ cup of the gochujang dressing to the pan and stir all the ingredients until evenly coated with the sauce. Cook for an additional 2 minutes.
Add the scallion and chile, sprinkle with the toasted sesame seed, and drizzle with the remaining 1 teaspoon sesame oil.
To serve, place the sauteed kimchi mixture in the center of a round platter and arrange the tofu slices in a circle along the edge. Drizzle the tofu with the remaining 1 tablespoon gochujang dressing.
Angry Penne Pasta
1 12-ounce box penne pasta
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup chopped red onion
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 Korean red chili or serrano chili, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
2 cups roughly chopped tomatoes
1 tablespoon gochugaru
1 tablespoon gochujang
Parsley, minced, to garnish (optional)
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the pasta and begin cooking according to the package directions.
Meanwhile, in a medium pot, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the red onion, garlic, bell pepper, Korean chile, salt, and black pepper and cook until the onions become translucent, about 3 minutes.
Add the tomatoes and more salt to the pot and continue stirring occasionally. Add the gochugaru and gochujang and stir until the vegetables are evenly coated. Add ¼ cup of the starchy pasta cooking water to the pot and stir.
Remove the vegetable mixture from the heat and blend the contents with an immersion blender (you can also transfer to a regular blender; be careful with the hot contents of the pot).
When the pasta has 1 more minute to go, drain the pasta and return it to the pot. Set the pot over medium heat and add the blended sauce. Cook until the pasta is al dente. Garnish with parsley, if using, and serve.