October 5, 2021 • Book Excerpt

An Excerpt from The Korean Vegan Cookbook: Reflections and Recipes from Omma’s Kitchen by Joanne Lee Molinaro

I STARTED MY 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. For example, the method my aunt used to pickle cabbage for kimchi involves a special choreography, and you won’t find it on other food blogs or in YouTube videos. I learned it by asking questions: “Why do you drop the knife through the cabbage instead of just cutting it on a cutting board?” “Why do you have to fold the top cabbage leaf over the rest of them?” and “Why does it matter where you get the cabbage from?” These are the kinds of secrets that breathe life into a recipe but may disappear over time. 

In 2017, about a year after I had started my blog, I also began to share my family’s immigrant experience, because I realized that my love of the food I grew up eating was inextricably tied to their journey in the United States. While I didn’t know my parents’ stories when I was growing up, as I grew older, I started to understand the importance of collecting and chronicling them — just like I would with recipes. 

The recipes I share online and in my book, The Korean Vegan, are all plant based. Veganism remains extremely rare in Korean culture. But, after thirty-seven years of eating meat, dairy, and eggs, I made the decision to exclude animal products from my diet. For some, this commitment is an easy choice. For me, it was a huge deal. Many of the foods I grew up eating— samgyupsahl (grilled pork belly), jjajangmyun (black bean noodles), and bulgogi (grilled flank steak)— were about as un- vegan as you could get. Though I’d never eaten a very meat-heavy diet, I still associated those foods with who I was, and I was terrified that going vegan meant losing my “Korean-ness.” 

And yet, I was surrounded by fresh vegetables throughout my childhood. Seoul Hahlmuhnee transformed our typical suburban backyard into a mini-farm, filled with tomatoes as fat as your face after a ramen binge and lime-green hobbahk (Korean squash) nestled in the wings. Small chili plants lined the perimeter — we’d split the chilies open until the seeds bit into our hands. In September, we would climb the massive pear tree, pick what we could reach, and wander back into the house with fingers and lips sticky with autumn. And at the far end of the yard was my grandmother’s pride and joy: dozens of tall, graceful stalks of perilla leaves that turned their heartshaped faces to the sun like a troupe of ballerinas. 

And perhaps that’s why I found myself in Omma’s kitchen so often after I went vegan. There, I could learn how to make kimchi chigae — starting with making kimchi all the way to preparing the stew — from the closest link I had to a heritage I could never physically don. There was no plane in the world that could fly me to North Korea, but my mother’s words and her food could transport me to a place as close to it as possible. 

What I’ve learned by collecting and sharing 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. For me, the recipes in this book remind me of the garden in the backyard of our Skokie house, the deep wrinkles in my grandmother’s hands. They remind me of my mother’s perseverance, my father’s laughter.

From THE KOREAN VEGAN COOKBOOK: REFLECTIONS AND RECIPES FROM OMMA’S KITCHEN by Joanne Lee Molinaro, to be published on 10/12/2021 by Avery, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 Joanne Lee Molinaro

In her debut cookbook The Korean Vegan Cookbook: Reflections and Recipes from Omma’s Kitchen [Avery; Hardcover; October 12, 2021], Joanne Lee Molinaro shares recipes and narrative snapshots of the food that shaped her family history. Including more than 80 recipes, some come straight from her childhood: Jjajangmyun, the rich Korean-Chinese black bean noodles she ate on birthdays, or the humble Gamja Guk, a potato-and-leek soup her father makes. Some pay homage: Chocolate Sweet Potato Cake is an ode to the two foods that saved her mother’s life, Kale & Ramen Salad with noodle “croutons” and a dressing akin to ramen broth. With the intimate storytelling and stunning photography she’s become known for, The Korean Vegan Cookbook celebrates how deeply food and family shape our identity.