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The “Chili Crunch” trademark in the eyes of UC Irvine students

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Popular chili oil company Momofuku sent cease-and-desist letters in March to brands using the phrase “chili crunch,” which they then revoked a month later.

Just last month, The Guardian reported on Momofuku’s cease-and-desist letters sent to multiple business owners using a variant of the name “chili crunch” for their products. Momofuku, a culinary brand associated with multiple Asian restaurants and food products in the U.S., recently came under scrutiny for their attempted trademarking of the term “chili crunch” and related names with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

The pressure seems to be mainly on celebrity chef David Chang, who opened Momofuku Noodle Bar and later founded the Momofuku brand. His recognition as a strong figure in the Asian American community, who opened up infinite possibilities for Asian American cuisine, seems to harden the blow against brands that received cease-and-desists from Momofuku. 

The Guardian quoted Michelle Tew, whose brand Homiah received one of the cease-and-desist letters on March 18, saying that Tew felt a “punch in the gut” after receiving the letter from Chang, who “helped to push Asian food forward into the mainstream.”

The idea of chili crunch didn’t originate with Momofuku; Lao Gan Ma has been one of the original household chili oil brands. Many online critics accused David Chang of stealing the idea for Momofuku’s Chili Crunch from existing cultural foods and brands. 

One user commented, “Are you now going to [trademark] ‘soy noodles’ and sue every Chinese restaurant in the country? Really shameful what y’all are doing,” on @momofukugoods’s pinned post on Instagram about “momofuku noodles.” 

David Chang and Momofuku CEO Marguerite Mariscal apologized for the brand’s actions in his April 12 podcast episode on The Dave Chang Show. , 

“What we’re learning this week, and what we’re painfully learning, is that the words crunch and crisp are essentially the same thing in Mandarin. In holding the term crunch as a trademark, Momofuku can be seen as trying to own a piece of Chinese culture and heritage, which is exactly the opposite of what we wanted to achieve,” Chang said.  “First and foremost, I want to apologize to everyone in the AAPI community who’s been hurt or feels like I’ve marginalized them or put a ceiling on them by our actions.”

In a discussion with Asian and Asian American students at UC Irvine, thoughts on Momofuku’s actions are divided. 

Annika Lee, a current first-year Singaporean American student, mentioned that they felt that Momofuku’s cease-and-desist letters felt unnecessary. 

“For lack of a better word, I think it was a little stupid [Momofuku] was sending [cease-and-desist letters] out. Strangely, he’s trying to claim this trademark when other people are using [the name], so I do think an apology was needed if the drama was aired publicly,” Lee shared. 

When asked about his apology, Lee said, “I think publicly acknowledging that you’ve messed up is a step in the right direction as well as stopping the cease-and-desist letters because, if you’re a smaller brand, you’re going to get scared and you’re going to stop, and that’s your way of making money.”

 A first-year Chinese American student, Alice Shen partially agreed with Lee but felt more sympathetic to the brand. Shen shared that she was familiar with Momofuku’s Chili Crunch, having eaten it before, but hadn’t heard of the brand’s attempt to trademark the name. 

“I know businesses; they have the one side that’s the creative side and one side that’s more about the business, so maybe they were just more focused on the logistics,” reasoned Shen, but acknowledged Momofuku’s shortsighted approach. “I think if a lot of people were getting really mad, he did the right thing to apologize, but it just seems like he didn’t think over his actions when he sent [the cease-and-desist letters].” 

In the end, Shen found that the brand may have been insensitive in the manner that they sent out the cease-and-desists to already existing smaller brands but didn’t find that it should have been an issue particularly related to being Asian American, stating, “With any other business, specifically like predominantly white [ones], they switch like ‘oh, this is our branding,’ and then people are like, ‘oh, okay’ and they’ll sue and stuff, but it won’t bring ethnicity and race into it; it’s just strictly business. I think for [Momofuku], their call was just business, but  it hurt the community in some way.” 

Momofuku revoked all of the cease-and-desist letters along with Chang’s apology. On April 12, @homiahfoods shared on their Instagram a response to Momofuku’s apology: “The terms Chili Crisp and Chili Crunch are generic descriptions of a foundational part of Asian/Asian American culinary tradition that have been passed down through generations and cannot be owned by any one entity. I am grateful that the community [has] spoken loudly in support of this fact.”

Corinna Chin is an Arts & Entertainment Staff Writer. She can be reached at corinnac@uci.edu.

Edited by Kamilla Jafarova, Jaheem Conley, Lillian Dunn.