Joanne Molinaro, 41, a TikTok star who runs Korean food blog Vegan, always incorporates a life lesson into every new cooking video. Her therapeutic voice could make someone cry or heal a broken heart and she uses that same voice to discuss racism, misogyny, body image, etc.
“They say true love lasts forever,” Molinaro said in a recent TikTok video, looking at the camera with a knife in his hand. “Wrong.” She pushed the sharp blade into a vegan egg roll. “Someday you’re going to give your trust to someone who doesn’t deserve it.”
She then shaped the rice into a small oval talking about the power and beauty of love. At the end of the 60 second TikTok video, a plate of beautifully wrapped egg sushi was ready and she invited me for a bite to eat while I wiped away my tears.
Molinaro has been sharing recipes and family stories since 2016, but her fame largely comes from TikTok, where she has amassed over two million followers in recent months. While the elaborate food preparation videos attracted a lot of attention, Molinaro’s charisma stood out with intimate stories about his earliest memory of racism or his socially awkward father.
“My videos are accompanied by a story about my diaspora,” she told me via Zoom. “I’m Korean American. My story is uniquely Korean American. And while you watch me do this [dish]I’m going to tell you a story about my Korean Americanity that all Korean Americans who watch this video can probably relate to. “
Overseas demand for Korean condiments, snacks and fresh foods hit an all-time high last year during the coronavirus pandemic. But for Molinaro, the portrayal of Korean cuisine in the United States reflected only a fraction of what she ate growing up.
“Everyone knows about Korean barbecue now,” she says. “Every time someone realizes I’m Korean, they say, ‘Oh, I’m eating bulgogi (Korean barbecue beef), “like it’s supposed to be important to me”.
Kalbi, or marinated short ribs, were reserved for special occasions like graduation or birthdays in Molinaro’s family. Instead of meat, his dinner tables were more modest but filled with an abundance of vegetables like tofu, perilla leaves, and fermented soybeans.
For many Koreans, Molinaro said, eating and having meat is a sign of food security and “crossing over to the other side.” She feared that adopting a plant-based diet would make her less Korean or isolated from the “real” Korean community.
But the transition to veganism has brought the influencer closer to her heritage. She started researching her favorite Korean dishes to find out how to vegan them. “You can’t vegan something if you don’t really understand what it was to begin with,” she says.
Dried anchovies, for example, are widely used to make broths and side dishes in Korean cuisine. Kimchi, one of the Korean foods Molinaro cannot live on, is mostly cabbage and radish, but often marinated in fish sauce or shrimp paste. To incorporate fishy flavors without using anchovies, she suggested using dashima (dried kelp) or sea tangle powder to achieve a “sweet flavor of the sea.” She will be sharing more of her vegan recipes in The Korean Vegan Cookbook, which will be published by Penguin Random House in October 2021.
Outside of social media, Molinaro is a Chicago-based trial lawyer specializing in fraud – a career that has helped her develop her skills for creating short, informative videos and fending off trolls.
“I sometimes only have five pages to get all my legal arguments through, so I’m very used to reducing what I want to cover in a limited space,” she said. “This same idea applies to 60-second and sometimes 30-second videos.”
After the 2020 presidential election, Molinaro took advantage of his social media platforms to question the legitimacy of former President Donald Trump’s election fraud allegations.
Molinaro attributes his ferocity to his parents, who always spoke of politics and injustice. She spoke fondly of her mother, who moved to the United States with just $ 800 in her pocket to pursue a career in nursing. Molinaro’s father, a frequent story subject in his videos, grew up in South Korea under the authoritarian regime of Syngman Rhee and idealized the United States as the land of dreams and democracy.
In light of the rise of anti-Asians, the content creator offered both solace and solidarity in reminding us of our parents. The day after the Atlanta spa shooting, Molinaro uploaded a short video of herself – once again – passionately waving a knife and peeling a mango. Unlike other scandalized messages I had seen that day, she only mentioned the resentment of being a translator for our immigrant parents.
“Right now, our [mothers] and our [fathers], our [grandmas] and our [grandpas], they need us to wield our English words like swords to defend them, “Molinaro said in his video, seething with anger. It was his” rallying cry “for the Asian American community, hoping to give power to those who felt helpless.
“There is something you and I can do that no one else can do,” she told me, referring to the little act of translating bank letters and calling customer service for our parents. Her voice grew more passionate, slapping her hand on the table as if it had transformed into The Korean Vegan before my eyes.
“Because we are the only ones to have this experience,” she continued. “White people don’t have the experience, so they can’t do this for us. We have to do it for ourselves.”