My husband walks into the house, from work. Our side door from the driveway is the entrance to the kitchen. He tilts his head as he says, “What’s that I smell?”
“Oh, no, is it bad?” I respond, trying to read his look.
“No, not at all,” he replies, “It’s just an aroma that I’m not used to.”
“Ah, it must be the doenjang.”
He looks at me quizzically.
“I’m making a recipe from my new cookbook, for the Buzz. It’s a twist on coleslaw using Korean ingredients. The author did give fair warning that it can be overpowering. Or perhaps it’s the perilla leaves.”
That quizzical look again.
And thus, a part of my journey into a new world of cooking and ingredients I am exploring through the culinary mind and imagination of Joanne Lee Molinaro in her first cookbook, The Korean Vegan. When Patty Lombard informed me that Joanne would be signing copies at a meet and greet at Chevalier’s Books, I rearranged my schedule to be there. I followed Joanne’s blog on Instagram but hadn’t yet made any of her recipes. I was excited to meet someone who made the leap from blog to book and also supports the plant-based cooking movement. I’m glad I did. There’s something magical about holding a book, especially this book. It’s stunning! The Korean Vegan is as much a coffee table book as it is a cookbook, filled with captivating photos of her food flanking the recipes that are a reincarnation of traditional foods using all plant-based ingredients.
The opening pages introduce the reader to the Korean family table of Molinaro’s childhood in Chicago: a table filled with love. A table filled with food far different than that of her peers at school. A table that is the basis of the choices she made in creating plant-based recipes that are steeped in tradition. It’s a touching memoir that connects you to Korean food.
Molinaro then takes you through the Korean vegan pantry, explaining the terms she uses and the ingredients you’ll need to purchase. This is a fantastic lesson in the condiments and pastes of Korean food. The Basics chapter includes sauces, dressings, and broths that you’ll need to make ahead for some of the recipes. The rest of the recipes are broken up by category, like most cookbooks. What I like is that she rates the difficulty of the recipe at the top of the page.
I chose to make Korean Pear Slaw. It seemed a good start as it was rated “easy.” I figure no matter one’s experience in a kitchen, when tackling a new cuisine, start with easy. Most of the ingredients were available at the Larchmont Farmer’s Market or other local markets. All except two, anyway – the Doejang and the perilla leaves – which led me on an adventure to Koreatown’s H Mart on Western Avenue. Once inside this fascinating world of Asian foods, I shopped far beyond those two ingredients. Then, with my bagsful of goodies, I set out for home to make the salad.
As I noted at the start of this article, Molinaro gives fair warning about the strong smell of Doenjang. I opened the container with trepidation. No need. I didn’t find it unpleasant at all. It seemed similar to Miso paste, but a bit darker and funkier. So I tasted it. Delicious. Next was the perilla leaves. I need to note that at H Mart, the produce sign says “sesame leaves.” Thanks to Joanne’s photos, I figured out that they were one and the same. I tasted. Hmmm, a bit citrusy, a bit grassy. My mind was trying to find a relationship to other foods that are familiar. Interesting that we do that to find comfort in something new. The truth is, they taste like perilla leaves, a flavor that I had never experienced.
Making the dressing was straightforward. The slaw part was a bit more effort – it requires some knife skills, as most of the vegetables are julienned. Once done with that, it is simply a toss and eat salad.
And the result? The first bite was that same mind bend of trying to find familiarity. It was different than any slaw my husband or I had eaten. And then the next bite. And the next. And then we couldn’t stop eating it. It’s delicious! A unique blend of flavors that tantalize the palate. Letting it sit and marinate deepens the flavors, so it only gets better.
And so concludes my first foray into Korean cooking, using foods unfamiliar in my kitchen that will now sit side by side with ones more familiar. I am looking forward to trying more of Molinaro’s recipes, especially the many Kimchi variations.
If I have piqued your interest in this new concept of Korean cooking and you’d like to try this recipe and the many more in Molinaro’s book, head over to Chevalier’s. They still have signed copies available in their cookbook section. Or you can order it through Molinaro’s website, The Korean Vegan. It’s such a gorgeous book. I can’t recommend it enough.