May 27, 2024

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Before Momofuku's chili crisis, there was the “OG” Lao Gan Ma chili oil

Before Momofuku's chili crisis, there was the “OG” Lao Gan Ma chili oil

Celebrity chef David Chang and his Momofuku brand recently erupted in criticism after the company criticized fellow Asian-led chili oil companies for using the term “chili crunch.” The buzz has also renewed Lao Gan Ma's love for crunchy chili peppers, a distinct condiment that many people of Asian descent, especially Chinese Americans, associate with home.

last week, Watchman Chang's food empire, which makes Momofuku Chili Crunch, has sent cease and desist letters to a number of chili oil companies, many of which are small operations, it reported. He called on Momofuku to stop using the term “Chili Crunch,” a trademark the food giant bought last year after it was sued by Denver-based Chili Colonial for “trademark infringement.” Momofuku's letters seek to ban other companies from using the phrase, although it does not ban the making of chili sauces.

However, many Asian Americans said that if the “OG” chili oil – lao gan ma – had been a long-term success… Without having to “bully” other companies, Momofuku shouldn't do that either. Others say the nostalgia-filled centerpiece with its signature Asian aunty logo is worthy of its flowers. In many Chinese American households, the condiment, an attractive mixture of deep-fried red peppers, oil, peanuts and MSG, is as ubiquitous as Morton's salt.

“When I moved to the United States for college and was cooking at home, this was probably the only condiment I used,” said Megan Wang, a Brooklyn-based baker who grew up in China. “Lao Gan Ma was always there. Always.”

Asian Americans and foodies alike point out that Lao Gan Ma's chili sauce predates newer products by decades — including Momofuku's, which launched in 2018. Chang has been open about his love for Lao Gan Ma, which has been a Inspiration for his sauce.

The older brand did not seek to trademark the name of its oil, although it took steps to protect the logo associated with it. According to the US Patent and Trademark Office's database, a sauce manufacturer, Guiyang Nanming Laoganma Special Flavor Foodstuff, applied for a trademark in 2001 for an “illustration including words/letters/numbers” for its logo. An application was made in 2002, which has since been abandoned, for the image of the iconic woman on the urn.

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Asian Americans point out that this spice has thrived for decades, quietly remaining a staple in the pantries of Asian immigrants across the country. Cecilia Xia, a Chinese American residing in Los Angeles, said her parents regularly bought jars from the Chinese grocery store 99 Ranch. She doesn't remember the moment she was served the sauce, as it was always in the fridge.

“One of the vivid memories I have is, after school, I would try to come up with creative snacks for myself,” said Shea, who works in technology. “This is what I remember from my childhood – taking Lao Gan Ma and putting it on pizza.”

Wang, who immigrated to the United States to study for college, said she can rely on the sauce to decorate the tables of any Chinese restaurant she visits. For her, the sight was always comforting, especially the aunt in the apron on the front of the jar, which conjured up feelings of home, from the people to the food.

“It's like my grandmother Nainai. It's the old short haircut that followed the Cultural Revolution,” Wang said. “It's nostalgia for the classics that have stood the test of time.”

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The latest chatter began in March, when Momofuku sent cease and desist letters to companies including Homiah, a Malaysian food brand known for its Sambal Chili Crunch. Momofuku's lawyers demanded that the company and others it contacted stop using the term “chili crunch” within 90 days.

According to the letter, seen by NBC News, Homiah's use of the term violates Momofuku's trademark rights by “creating a clear risk that consumers will mistakenly believe that Homiah's Chili Crunch products are associated with Momofuku.”

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Michelle Teo, founder of Homiya, likened receiving the letter to “a punch in the gut.”

dietSambal Chili Crunch's Sambal Chili Crunch is personal and based on Granny Nonie's family recipe dating back countless generations of Nyonya heritage in Penang, Malaysia, Teo wrote. “I was shocked and disappointed when a well-known and respected player in the Asian food industry legally – a one-woman show operating on a much smaller scale – threatened to sell me a product that represents part of my family’s history and culture.”

Actor Simu Liu, who is chief content officer at MìLà, another chili crunch company that was sent a cease and desist letter, went so far as to challenge Chang to a blind taste test of the sauces. The winner will keep the name, he wrote on social media. Many others criticized Chang, who has made a name in the culinary world as a champion of small businesses, for undermining Asian American solidarity.

Zhang did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement shared with NBC News, a Momofuku spokesperson said the company stands shoulder to shoulder with Asian American and Pacific Islander brands. But the spokesperson added that he had noticed “several companies” that sold chili crunch products were rebranded to use the term “chili crunch,” and said that Momofuku itself had previously been sued by Colonial Chili, which makes a Mexican-inspired sauce. .

“When we created our product, we wanted a name we could own and intentionally chose 'Chili Crunch' to further differentiate it from the broader Chili Crunch category, reflecting the uniqueness of Chili Crunch, which blends flavors from multiple culinary traditions,” the spokesperson said. “We worked with a family-owned company called Chili Colonial to purchase the brand from them. They had previously defended the brand against companies like Trader Joe's.

Lao Gan Ma, which translates to “old godmother,” was introduced by a woman named Huapi Tao in 1984, according to the company's website. The sauce is taken from the popular flavors of Guizhou Province. It was used in homes decades before similar seasonings were sprinkled on haute cuisine.

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“It was this thing that you always had on your table or in your cooking, and then suddenly, these things became popular, and people started calling them ‘crispy chili peppers,'” said Anita Manor, a professor. at the University of Miami, whose research includes food studies.

Unlike Momofuku and many of the newer brands entering the food industry, Manor said, Lao Gan Ma does not have an extensive marketing strategy in the United States. The brand is not associated with celebrity chefs, nor is the price point reflective of the current food trend. Chili peppers are crisp.

The woman on the bottle adds another layer of comfort, Manor said.

“The difference between that and Aunt Jemima or Uncle Ben, for example, is that it may be familiar, but it's not rooted in a racist history,” Manor said. “She's one of us.”

However, many say that no two brands are exactly the same. Given Lao Gan Ma's long-term success, some Asian Americans feel it's time for Momofuku and other brands to take a page from the godmother's book and keep the space open to everyone.

“I own all these brands of crunchy chili peppers, and I use them in different dishes, and I appreciate the differences and differences and all the flavors and textures and differences in texture,” Shea said. “We have room for so many moisturizers and serums when we buy skincare. So we should be able to appreciate crunchy chili peppers in the same way.

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