This Trademark War Over Chilli Crisp Has The Internet Divided

A trademark battle is brewing in the US over a beloved Asian condiment, a version of which may even be on your table right now! Popular American ramen restaurant Momofuku is in the middle of this legal battle; David Chang, the mind behind the brand first launched its popular chilli crisp, called Chili Crunch, in 2018 and began selling jars of it in 2020. This umami-rich chilli crisp has a distinct heat, which you may have experienced in any Sichuan chilli condiment and is made with roasted chilli-infused oil with crispy fried garlic, onion, spices and herbs. 

It’s important to note that this condiment was by no means invented by Chang and his team as hundreds of home recipes exist for this condiment and it has been produced by hundreds of brands for years, across grocery stores and speciality Asian markets.

However, celebrity chef David Chang, is trying to seize control of the name, which has to do with the product. The company has sent cease-and-desist letters to companies using the term “chilli crunch” and “chile crunch” on their condiment labels as the founder is trying to trademark “chilli crunch” with the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

Naturally, Asian food brands and restaurants were not okay with this and social media backlash followed. Even Shang-Chi star Simu Liu, who is a chief content officer for a brand that makes a similar condiment, challenged Momofuku to a blind taste test on Twitter recently. “Winner keeps the name, loser (it’ll be you) backs off,” he said. 

Liu also shared a list of small businesses that sell their chilli crunch sauces and shared how this condiment has existed for hundreds of decades. “Asian chilli crunches actually predate all of our businesses and will endure long after. Trying to claim ownership of it is like trying to claim 'ketchup' or 'mayo'. There's room for all in the marketplace, from the mom and pops to the MiLas and Momos!” the actor wrote on X.

In a statement to The Times, a spokesperson for Momofuku said the trademark was never intended to “stifle innovation in a category that we care deeply about.” “When we created our product, we wanted a name we could own and intentionally picked ‘Chili Crunch’ to further differentiate it from the broader chilli crisp category,” the spokesperson wrote in an email. “We worked with a family-owned company called Chile Colonial to purchase the trademark from them. They have defended the trademark previously against companies like Trader Joe’s.”

Interestingly, not every brand uses the word ‘crunch’ in their label for the condiment. Each brand has its own recipe for the chilli condiment, often calling it chilli oil, chilli crisp or chilli sauce. And Momofuku is specifically concerned with brands using the terms “chile crunch” and “chilli crunch”.

A rival producer who has criticised Momofuku’s move is Fly by Jing chef and entrepreneur Jing Gao, who started bottling Sichuan chilli crisp in 2018. Gao’s company reportedly filed to trademark “Sichuan Chili Crisp” in 2019 but saw the application dismissed in 2020. 

“The ‘chile crunch’ trademark should also not have been granted,” wrote Gao in a newsletter recently. “It is a descriptive term for a cultural product, one that has existed in Chinese cuisine for hundreds of years.” 

Gao is an investor in New York-based Malaysian food brand Homiah, which received a cease and desist letter, as their Homiah Sambal Chili Crunch, is considered a trademark infringement. Michelle Tew has revealed that her chilli crunch is based on a family’s recipe. Tew describes receiving the letter as “a punch in the gut”. “If Kraft Heinz hit me up [with a cease-and-desist] it would have been so distressing,” says Tew, “but the fact that it was Momofuku makes me feel really, really sad.”

The Internet had a lot to say about Momofuku’s attempt to trademark something which is widely used by small and mid-range businesses. “Momofuku trademarking chilli crunch shows that having the approval of your community doesn’t matter if all you want to do is win. He didn’t want to be the best. He doesn’t want to be respected by AAPI. He wants to be the who white suburbanites reach for when they’re at Erewhon,” wrote a user on X

Another user wrote, “absolute loser behaviour. bro acting like he invented a condiment that has been loved and nurtured for generations across the globe (not JUST east asia) to target humble, small businesses.”