‘Felt like a punch in the gut’: Asian chilli crunch makers including from Malaysia hit back at Momofuku’s trademark application

A publicity shot for Momofuku chili crisp. Celebrity chef David Chang’s culinary empire has applied to trademark “chili crunch” in the United States, angering small producers. some of whom have received cease-and-desist letters from its lawyers. - Photo: Momofuku

HONG KONG (South China Morning Post/ANN): Momofuku, the culinary empire founded by celebrity chef David Chang, has sought to trademark the term “chili crunch” in the United States through the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), preventing others from using the phrase to market their products.

The company filed its trademark application on March 29 with the USPTO. It already owns trademark rights to “chile crunch” in the US.

It’s a move that has angered numerous producers of chilli crunch – a textured, chilli- oil-based condiment usually containing crisp morsels of garlic, chilli and other aromatics.

Michelle Tew of Homiah Foods holds a jar of her chilli crisp (above, right). She says hers is based on a Nyonya family recipe dating back “countless generations” in Penang, Malaysia. - Photo: Instagram@homiahfoodsMichelle Tew of Homiah Foods holds a jar of her chilli crisp (above, right). She says hers is based on a Nyonya family recipe dating back “countless generations” in Penang, Malaysia. - Photo: Instagram@homiahfoods

Homiah Foods, a New York-based brand founded by Michelle Tew from Penang, Malaysia, was one of the producers sent a cease-and-desist letter by Momofuku’s legal team, demanding that she stop using the term to market her Homiah’s Sambal Chili Crunch.

“Not gonna lie – this felt like a punch in the gut,” she wrote in an Instagram post, mentioning that she had previously been a Momofuku fan and supporter.

The product that has been targeted by Momofuku’s legal team “is personal and based on a family recipe from my Granny Nonie dating back to countless generations of Nyonya heritage in Penang, Malaysia”, she explains.

“I was shocked and disappointed that a well-known and respected player in the Asian food industry would legally threaten me – a one-woman show operating on a much smaller scale – from selling a product that is part of my family’s history and culture.”

Jing Gao, the founder behind Los Angeles-based food brand Fly by Jing – which produces its own version of the condiment, called Sichuan Chilli Crisp – was also critical of Momofuku’s approach. Gao is an investor in Homiah Foods.

“The ‘chile crunch’ trademark should never have been granted,” she says. “Just like ‘chili crisp’, it is a generic and descriptive term for a culturally specific condiment, one that has existed in Chinese culinary culture for hundreds of years.”

She claims that the Momofuku empire has essentially targeted small businesses founded by ethnic-minority women, such as Tew’s as well as Seattle-based MiLa – a soup dumpling brand set up by husband-and-wife pair Caleb Wang and Jen Liao that recently revamped its sauce offering with their take on chili crunch.

Jing Gao, who founded Fly By Jing. - Photo: Fly By JingJing Gao, who founded Fly By Jing. - Photo: Fly By Jing

MiLa has the backing of Hollywood star Simu Liu, who is on board as its chief content officer.

Momofuku currently sells its own Momofuku Chili Crunch on its website for US$13 a jar.

It’s described as “a spicy-crunchy chili oil that adds a flash of heat and texture to your favourite dishes”, while the blurb also states that the brand “spent a decade tweaking the formula in our restaurants to lock in the perfect amount of spice, crunch, and umami”. It has been on sale since 2020.

While not marketed as chili crisp, China’s Lao Gan Ma is its most well-known predecessor (its iconic red-labelled bottles are advertised as “fried chilli in oil”); it was created in 1984 by Huabi Tao, whose face graces each label. The well-loved formula is a mix of soybeans, chili, peanuts, onion and other flavourings.

Gao believes that by attempting to trademark what she feels is a “generic cultural term”, Momofuku sets a dangerous precedent for fair competition as well as handicapping small brands in a traditionally marginalised space.

“It was not long ago that investors and retailers told us that our business was ‘too niche’, there was no opportunity or space for brands like ours selling products like chili crisp,” she says.

“The more entrants and competitors in the space only serves to validate the market opportunity. The bigger we can grow the pie for all, the better it is for everyone.”

Gao previously made an attempt to trademark her signature Sichuan chili crisp in June 2019. The UTSPO refused the application in August that year, on the grounds that “Sichuan chili crisp” was merely a descriptive term.

She reapplied to register the trademark on April 3.

Meanwhile, Rice Market, a grocery store based in Washington and specialising in Asian provisions, declared that it will no longer sell Momofuku products at its store.

Yun Hai Taiwanese Pantry, a store based in Brooklyn, New York, dedicated to promoting small Asian businesses, also pledged to boycott Momofuku and its products.

“Since our shop opened, we have maintained a chilli crisp/crunch/oil wall, and will continue to do so,” they said. “We included Momofuku’s chili crunch, but we won’t stock it any longer.”

Malaysian cuisine makes use of a chilli sauce called 'sambal' - AP PhotoMalaysian cuisine makes use of a chilli sauce called 'sambal' - AP Photo

Meanwhile, Al Jazeera reported that Chang, who owns the Momofuku restaurant chain in the US and has since abandoned his trademark claim, began selling jars of “Chili Crunch” in 2020, but he is far from the first person to put such a product on the market.

In English, they have gone by various names, including chilli crunch, chilli crisp and chilli oil, depending on their consistency and the proportions of ingredients.

Tew, who learned to cook from her Malaysian grandmother, chose to call her product “Sambal Chili Crunch”, as sambal, which typically includes ingredients such as chillies, shrimp paste, garlic and palm sugar, is not widely known outside of Southeast Asia and she needed to find a way to explain it to a foreign audience.

Jun Yi Loh, a Malaysian food writer and recipe developer, agreed that Malaysian food terms are not necessarily easy to grasp, which is why descriptors such as “chili crunch” need to be used.

“I’ve long held the opinion that one of the key reasons Malaysian food hasn’t blown up in the way that Singaporean or Thai food has in recent years is that our food isn’t as easy to describe or package in a sort of elevator pitch way,” Loh told Al Jazeera.

After weeks of outcry over Momofuku’s cease and desist letters, which were sent to dozens of small businesses in the US, Chang last week backed down, saying on The Dave Chang Show podcast: “I understand why people are upset, and I’m truly sorry.”

In a statement sent to Al Jazeera, Momofuku said: “When we created Chili Crunch, we wanted a name to differentiate our product from the broader chilli crisp category. We believed the name ‘Chili Crunch’ reflected the uniqueness of our product, which blends flavours from multiple culinary traditions, and bought a pre-existing trademark for the name.”

Momofuku said it had taken feedback from the community on board and now understood that the term “chili crunch” carried a broader meaning.

“We have no interest in ‘owning’ a culture’s terminology and we will not be enforcing the trademark going forward,” the company said.

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