Joanne Molinaro, 41, a TikTok star who runs The Korean Vegan food blog, always embeds a life lesson into each new cooking video. Her therapeutic voice could move someone to tears or heal a broken heart and she uses that same voice to discuss racism, misogyny, body image, and more.
"They say that true love lasts forever," Molinaro said in a recent TikTok video, staring into the camera with a knife in her hand. "Wrong." She shoved the sharp blade into a vegan egg roll. "One day you're going to give your trust to someone who doesn't deserve it."
She went on to shape the rice into a tiny oval as she spoke about the power and beauty of love. By the end of the 60-second TikTok video, a plate of beautifully wrapped egg sushi was ready, and she invited me to have a bite as I wiped off my tears.
Molinaro has been sharing recipes and family stories since 2016, but her fame largely came from TikTok, where she has amassed over two million followers in recent months. While the elaborate food prepping videos drew much attention, Molinaro's charisma stood out with intimate stories about her earliest memory of racism or her socially awkward dad.
"My videos come with a story about my diaspora," she told me over Zoom. "I'm Korean American. My story is uniquely Korean American. And while you watch me make this [dish], I'm going to tell you a story about my Korean Americanness that every Korean American who's watching this video can probably relate to."
The overseas demand for Korean condiments, snacks and fresh foods reached a record high last year during the coronavirus pandemic. But for Molinaro, the representation of Korean cuisine in the United States reflected only a fraction of what she ate growing up.
"Everybody knows Korean barbecue now," she said. "Every time somebody realizes I'm Korean, they're like, 'Oh, I eat bulgogi (Korean barbecue beef),' like that's supposed to be significant to me."
Kalbi, or marinated short ribs, were reserved for special occasions like graduation or birthdays in Molinaro's family. Instead of meat, her dinner tables were more humble but filled with an abundance of vegetables like tofu, perilla leaves and fermented soybeans.
For a lot of Koreans, Molinaro said, eating and having meat is a sign of food security and "having made it across to the other side." She had worried that by adopting a plant-based diet, she would be less Korean or isolated from the "real" Korean community.
But the transition into veganism drew the influencer closer to her heritage. She began researching her favorite Korean foods to figure out how to veganize those dishes. "You can't veganize something if you don't actually understand what it was to begin with," she said.
Dried anchovies, for example, are used extensively for making broths and side dishes in Korean cuisine. Kimchi, one of the Korean foods Molinaro cannot live without, is mostly made of 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 "gentle flavor of the sea." She will share 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's helped equip her will skills to craft informative short videos and fend off trolls.
"I sometimes have only five pages to get across all my legal arguments, so I'm very familiar with shrinking what I want to get at into a limited amount of space," she said. "That same idea applies to 60-second and sometimes 30-second videos."
Following the 2020 presidential election, Molinaro leveraged her social media platforms to question the legitimacy of former President Donald Trump's election fraud claims.
Molinaro credits her fierceness to her parents, who have always been vocal about politics and injustice. She spoke fondly of her mom, who moved to the U.S. with only $800 in her pocket to pursue a career in nursing. Molinaro's dad, a story subject that frequently comes up in her videos, grew up in South Korea under the authoritarian regime of Syngman Rhee and idealized the U.S. as the land of dreams and democracy.
In light of the surge in anti-Asian the Atlanta spa shootings, Molinaro uploaded a short video of her — once again — wagging around a knife passionately and peeling a mango. Unlike other outraged messages I'd seen that day, she only mentioned the resentment of being a translator for our immigrant parents., the content creator offered both solace and solidarity by reminding us of our parents. On the day after
"Right now, our [mothers] and our [fathers], our [grandmas] and our [grandpas], they need us to brandish our English words like swords to defend them," Molinaro said in her video, seething with anger. It was her "rallying cry" for the Asian American community, in hopes of empowering those who felt helpless.
"There's something you and I can do that nobody else can," she told me, referring to the small act of translating bank letters and calling customer services for our parents. Her voice grew more impassioned, slapping her hand onto the table as if she had transformed into The Korean Vegan before my eyes.
"Because we're the only ones who have this experience," she continued. "White people do not have the experience, so they can't do this for us. We need to do it for ourselves."