Trial attorney by day and content creator by night, Joanne Lee Molinaro is known to her millions of social media followers as the Korean Vegan. In her social media posts, she delivers beautifully crafted videos showing her cook, while she shares personal stories about her life and that of her parents, who had escaped North Korea as children before immigrating to the United States as adults. Born and raised in Chicago – the city where she still resides with her husband, Anthony – Molinaro is set to embark on a book tour to promote “The Korean Vegan Cookbook: Reflections and Recipes from Omma's Kitchen” (Avery, $35). For more information on her in-person appearances – which kick off Oct. 12 in Chicago – check out her website (https://thekoreanvegan.com/book-tour-events).
Q: Do you have a difficult time finding good vegan food in your travels?
A: Not anymore. There are Michelin-rated vegan restaurants. I've eaten all over the world now as a vegan and there are so many places that are truly challenging the stereotype that vegans eat nothing but rabbit food. Even with Korean food, people think of meat and barbecue, but a lot of (it) is plant based. There are great restaurants in South Korea that are entirely vegan. Los Angeles was another food epiphany for me because I had experienced bad vegan food before – wilty salads with terrible dressing and not much texture. L.A. was great, because I got to eat American vegan food that was done well. Chicago is also a great city for vegan food.
Q: Why is Italy so special for you?
A: My husband’s family lives in Italy. He has a whole bunch of cousins, cousins’ kids that we see. We’ve been to Italy together five times. I went there as a non-vegan in 2015 and then each subsequent trip after as a vegan. We got married there. We knew we wanted to get married in Rome, where his father was from.
Q: Do you find a common similarity between any cuisines when it comes to eating vegan?
A: Mediterranean cuisine is very similar to Korean cuisine, because it’s already so plant based. It’s easy to make it vegan, because you remove maybe one thing and it’s still delicious and healthy.
Q: Once this pandemic is over, where will you go for a proper vacation?
A: Our first trip is going to be to Europe. We definitely want to go back to Italy. Rome has always been our hub. We've been to Sardinia a couple of times. We've been to Milan, but we haven't been to Florence yet. Anthony is a musician and is always telling me how beautiful Vienna is, so I definitely want to go there. We went to London a couple of years ago a few days before Christmas. The entire area was shut down. It was really cold and gray. I really want to (return) when the weather's better and the city’s kind of popping.
Q: You’re a Chicago girl. Would you live anywhere else?
A: I could, for a while anyhow. I’d actually like to live in Korea for six months to a year, whether it’s to (write another) cookbook or just a book. I’d like to do more research on Korean temple cuisine (that originated in Buddhist temples) and just food in general.
Q: Everyone knows you as the Korean Vegan. Do you envision yourself perhaps writing a book about another country’s cuisine, like Italian?
A: I would love to. I see myself living in Rome for at least a year because of exactly that reason. I love Italian cuisine so much, but I need to learn Italian better. I want to completely immerse myself first. I believe if you love my food, you’ve got to love my people. And for me, when I learn Italian cuisine, I want to understand the Italian people making that cuisine. One of the reasons I love that show “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy” is because it shows the full story of food in a way that’s so respectful, thoughtful, and beautiful.
Q: What is the most important thing you’ve learned from your travels?
A: That I love travel. I used to think that I hated it, because I'm a very anxious person. I don't like to leave my house. I'm a homebody. I'm very connected to my parents and my family. I don't like to be away from them. But I equated travel with work. It was always to take a deposition, do an interview, meet with clients, go to trial, go to court – so there was always this pent-up anxiety that I associated with traveling. But now, I even miss the airport and the joy of landing somewhere else.
Q: How did you let go of that anxiety?
A: I used to stress if I didn't have everything perfectly planned. And then I'd be sitting there staring up at the Sistine Chapel and realize, I don't give a damn if I didn't bring my iPhone charger. It doesn't matter that this beautiful moment wasn't articulated in some spreadsheet I forgot to bring. That was a huge thing for me to learn – that you can't really immerse yourself in the joy of travel if you try and plan every second of it.
Q: You are an avid runner. Why is it important for you to go for a run on your trips?
A: I love using running as an excuse to really understand a city I’m in. You get a perspective on that place that you can't really get in any other way. I've run past some of the most beautiful architecture in the world.
(Jae-Ha Kim is a New York Times bestselling author and travel writer. You can respond to this column by visiting her website at www.jaehakim.com. You may also follow “Go Away With…” on Twitter at @GoAwayWithJae where Jae-Ha Kim welcomes your questions and comments.)