Shattering the Beef Bulgogi Ceiling

I was intrigued about the “veganization” of a cuisine that depends so heavily on the ocean and soy sauce kissed beef to global affection.

Can you ask them to make it vegan?’

I begged my mother. Okay, there’s no phrase for that,” Joanne Lee Molinaro, author of one of the fall’s most popular cookbooks, The Korean Vegan. The author and I met on Zoom in July, well before the book was launched and hit the New York Times Bestseller list. After writing a Korean cookbook with Deuki Hong, The neatly written book is an astounding achievement because Korean food doesn’t seem to match the plant-based worldview.

Thanks to her savvy recipe writing and concentration on veggie cooking, Molinaro, a lawyer turned recipe blogger with 2.7 million followers, has transformed the idea of Korean home cuisine. Through out fennel, doenjang, and a vegetarian gamjatang that made my mind spin.

You mention how un-vegan Korean food is. What makes you think Korean food is as “un-vegan” as it gets?
That depends on how you view veganism. In many respects, I’d argue 99.9% of Korean food isn’t vegetarian. It contains beef or seafood. Because Korea is a peninsula. So it’s a seafood-heavy meal. Because all you have to do is remove that one element that makes it not vegan and you’ve got a gorgeous vegan dinner.

However, Korean cuisine is also highly plant-centric…
The Korean cuisine includes various sea and land veggies, however they are typically seasoned with non-vegan ingredients. With only that one change, you have a highly veg-friendly dish.

Yes, sure, and kimchi jjigae is a fantastic example. Remove the pork belly or bacon and you have this amazing meal. And I appreciate that you mention that seafood is essential in Korea, that it isn’t simply barbeque. How frequently do you hear, “Isn’t Korean food basically barbecue?” I have (laughs).
So, how can you veganize Korean food when so much of it is Korean barbecue? That’s what people think about Korean cuisine. Aside from the cookbook and recipes, one of the delights of The Korean Vegan is telling the world that Korean food is so much more than what you see at a Korean restaurant. While it is the most popular Korean food in Western society, Korean-Americans, Korean diasporans, and native Koreans will be interested in sundubu jjigae. They’ll be interested in ddeokbokki and other things that Americans and other Westerners may not be familiar with.

Let’s speak fennel soup. What a fun twist to add to Korean cooking, especially with doenjang. Smart.
It’s a fennel broth doenjang guk, so instead of garlic and onion, I used fennel. And it creates a beautiful, sweet scent that accentuates the doenjang’s stink. Doenjang guk is a simple soup that is served practically every meal. It’s a palette cleanser, or a palate transitioner. So after a large barbeque lunch, you often get doenjang guk. “Wait, now we’re having soup?” asks someone who has never been to a Korean restaurant.

Isn’t it odd? But it’s more of a bridge between that and a chilly meal, like naengmyeon or whatever. So the goal was to make a soft dish. That’s how I see doenjang guk. This recipe is light, comforting, and calming. The fennel provides a much milder flavour than instance garlic or onion, which are really strong flavours. “Hey, try me out,” says fennel. It’s almost a person to me. (Laughs)

But you’re giving it a name! I dig it
Yeah, but it’s intended to be like, “Hey, I’m intriguing, but I’m also gentle and soothing.” The’s what that doenjang guk is for. It’s a nice little accompaniment to rice or anything simple, modest, and healthful.

I like how you focus on muchim. I mean, kimchi gets more press (laughs)! But, because you have a few recipes, talk about muchim.
Yes, muchim is nearly like dressing, for those unfamiliar with the term. Like a slaw. It’s not always pickled. It’s more like a kale salad. You know how leftover kale salad usually tastes better? After it’s sat and disintegrated in your dressing? Muchim is made up of a root vegetable, a green or other robust vegetable, and a dressing, which in Korea is commonly a soy-based dressing or sauce.

Then you let it marinate for weeks in the sauce. It’s almost like braising. Pickling effect. So, muchim is fantastic since it lasts a long time. And it’s one of banchan’s pillars. Every Korean dinner comes with a variety of banchan (side dishes or garnishes). And since they endure so long, many of them are made of muchim. They can be salted, cured, or pickled.

And you can cook muchim? If you like, you may sauté it.
Yeah! Definitely. Sure, you can. I cooked kale. It may be boiled or sautéed, but the idea is that it lies in the sauce for days and absorbs the flavours.

Game, potato and perilla seed stew is my all-time favourite Korean meal. I’ve had it in many locations and forms. But the pig jowl, the neck is quite basic. That is, until I read your headnote. Maybe not! So tell me about your vegan gamjatang, which I like.
I enjoyed this recipe with pork and potatoes. A menu name, and I’m like… “Gamjatang?! The potato is virtually irrelevant! The pork, the greens, the sauce, and all that is the greatest part of the soup.” And when I first saw gamjatang on the menu, I was like, “Oh my god, I adore potatoes.” This is a potato soup.” Then I get the soup and realise it’s not the meal I adore.

It was a strange experience for me. To veganize it, I thought “Why not just accept the soup’s name?” Which is potato—tang is like a hot pot. Potato crock. Make it all about the potato. And I pondered, will it taste the same without the pork? The tastes of the gochugaru, the soy sauce, the garlic, the gorgeous wild sesame seeds—all of those things—don’t make you miss the pork at all. This meal fully honours its namesake, the potato.


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