Follow Mint Lounge

Latest Issue

Home > Food> Discover > Can a celebrity chef trademark the popular condiment chili crunch?

Can a celebrity chef trademark the popular condiment chili crunch?

Chef David Chang wants to trademark the ubiquitous sauce chili crunch or chili oil, and the move seems to signal a clever marketing strategy in poor taste

Chili oil.
Chili oil. (Photo by jcomp, Freepik)

People of greater wisdom than I — are they called lawyers? — have already weighed in on the David-and-Goliath battle in the US over the indispensable name “chili crunch.” In this case, David (as in Chang, the mega-celebrity chef and proprietor of the super-brand Momofuku) is Goliath. Can his puny challengers achieve anything close to a biblical victory over him?

Also read | Culinary diplomacy and an American bureaucrat's food choices in China

The rumpus started on this side of the Atlantic when the British newspaper The Guardian posted a story headlined, Trademark Bully: Momofuku turns up heat on others selling ‘chili crunch.’ The article recounted how small companies selling the condiment had received cease-and-desist letters from Chang’s multimillion-dollar enterprise, which includes a consumer goods division that raised nearly $30 million in venture capital funding last year as well as achieving more than $50 million in sales. None of these businesses have the financial firepower to counter Momofuku’s attempt to quash others using the names “chili crunch” or “chile crunch.” 

Chili crunch or chili crisp is a sauce originally concocted in China’s Sichuan province. Commercial versions of the condiment became popular especially in the US during the Covid lockdown. You may ask: Isn’t this like a fight over who owns the name “ketchup”? 

One can only imagine what today’s patent trolls and brandmeisters — and rule makers, for that matter — would have done with ketchup if they were around in the 17th century. That’s when European traders came in contact with the Hokkien diaspora from China’s Fujian province who’d settled in Southeast Asia. The migrants sauced their meals with what the Westerners heard as ke-tsap (which sounds very much like “pour on the sauce” to a 21st-century member of the disapora like me). The term became popular (in various forms) and eventually — after teaming up with the tomato, from the Americas — became catsup and ketchup. No one owns that name — just as no one owns “sandwich,” though apparently some enterprise in Japan has registered the name “wagyu sando” (which is the famously tender beef between two slices of bread).

According to the Guardian, Jing Gao, the founder of Fly By Jing, one of the most popular brands of chili crisps, tried to get the name “Sichuan chili crisp” trademarked in 2018 but was told it was too much of a description rather than a name. The Chinese words for chili crisps are literally “fragrant,” “spicy” and “crisp” (which can be translated as crunchy). The regulators were not swayed by the specificity of the ingredients’ provenance, China’s Sichuan province. It would be something like trademarking crema catalana (though that’s still an incendiary subject for those in Spain incensed about French crème brûlée).

Anyway, seekers of retrospective omens will point out that the final Chinese ideogram of chili crisp 脆  contains the element for “danger” — perhaps a prophecy for all the current hand-wringing. Seriously, though, the controversy is not about a Chinese recipe that evolved with the help of another immigrant ingredient from the Americas (chiles). It’s about Momofuku trying to establish and expand the marketing range of a trademarked name it acquired from another company just last year. However, Chile Crunch by Chile Colonial was essentially Mexican and was more of a traditional salsa macha, not chili crunch/crisps from Sichuan, China. Still, the company’s been established for about 16 years and it owned and defended the trademark — until the deal with Momofuku.

Late last month, according to the Los Angeles Times, Momofuku applied for the trademark for “Chili Crunch” — the product it’s had out on the market since 2020 — at the US Patent and Trademark Office. Soon after, the letters went out to the purveyors of products with the name “Chili Crunch.” This is a game of marketing, not culinary aptitude.

Momofuku probably had no choice but to send the cease-and-desist letters, one of which went to Homiah, a small New York City-based speciality shop specialising in the flavors of Southeast Asia. (The company’s name is Hokkien, meaning “good life” or “good fortune.”) The document sounds civil enough for what it’s trying to do. As the restaurant and food website Eater quotes it: “Momofuku trusts that Homiah did not adopt the CHILI CRUNCH mark in bad faith or with an intent to create confusion… But because trademark law requires brand owners to police use of their trademarks — and because Momofuku is concerned that consumers may actually be confused here — we write to request Homiah’s cooperation.” There was speculation online that if Momofuku didn’t attempt to defend the brand, it might give Chile Colonial an excuse to try to take back Chile Crunch. This might be a game of chicken, too.

Still, you can be only so polite with “Stop it!”

When the outcry over Momofuku bigfooting went around last week, Gao of Fly By Jing was advised by her lawyers to renew her trademark application for “Sichuan Chili Crisp” as a defensive measure in case Chang & Co. came for her name too. But, she wrote me on Monday, “We now believe that there’s been enough awareness raised about the descriptive nature of the term” that the US patent office cannot ignore the debate when it considers Momofuku’s latest trademark application for Chili Crunch. Chili Crunch? Chile Crunch? Wasn’t one a Mexican Salsa? And now both refer to Chinese-style chili crisps? Who’s doing the confusing here? Why are we even capitalizing these sauces?

Chang and his company have not responded to most media requests for comment, but a company spokesperson released a statement to The LA Times’s Jenn Harris saying, Momofuku did not mean to “stifle innovation in a category that we care deeply about.” The spokesperson wrote in an email, “When we created our product, we wanted a name we could own and intentionally picked ‘Chili Crunch’ to further differentiate it from the broader chili crisp category.” Nevertheless, Harris concluded in a deeply reported column: “Chili crunch belongs to everyone.” If everyone ceased-and-desisted, she wrote, “The only ‘Chili Crunch’ on store shelves will bear the name Momofuku.” That would not be a small share in a hot sauce market now in excess of $3 billion — one that could be worth almost twice as much in a decade.

With all the recrimination he’s faced over the last few days, Chang has suffered the gravest blows. In the recent past, Chang withstood controversies almost entirely because of his winning, self-deprecating persona: Mainstream audiences saw him as a cuddly Korean-American teddy bear even though he was really a Great White Shark. But he was always much more complex than his cheerful face. Two decades ago, he made culinary history as the disruptor of New York’s fine-dining scene with his brash downtown Manhattan Momofuku restaurants and their extraordinarily delicious and accessible food. He became messiah to the not-quite-ready-for-haute-cuisine kitchen brigades — as well as countless young Asian Americans. He’s turned that page.

Howard Chua-Eoan is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion covering culture and business. He previously served as Bloomberg Opinion's international editor and is a former news director at Time magazine. 

Also read | In Bengaluru, a supper club brings dishes from Chengdu in China


Next Story