Why David Chang Was Challenged To A Blind Taste Of 'Chili Crunch' Sauces

It's not often that legal trademark issues spark a blind taste-test challenge, especially one presented via social media. But that's exactly what happened when actor Simu Liu, in his capacity as chief content officer for Seattle's MiLA food brand, called out celebrity chef David Chang and his Momofuku food empire via X, previously known as Twitter. MiLA, along with six other smaller food brands, has been served a cease-and-desist letter from Momofuku over using the name "chili crunch" for its rendition of the common Asian condiment. Though legal briefs and skirmishes are sure to follow over the chili-crunch term that Momofuku claims as proprietary, this taste-test proposal from MiLA brings the challenge into the kitchen rather than the courtroom.

There's no indication of Chang responding to the X-issued challenge, but the gist of it is to settle things on a taste-to-taste level. In the April 5 post, directed to Momofuku, Liu states, "I hear you're bullying businesses over use of the term 'chili crunch'. As Chief Content Officer of MiLa, I propose a blind taste test of both our 'chili crunch' sauces. Winner keeps the name, loser (it'll be you) backs off."

The challenge carries a David and Goliath-style inference since the targeted small businesses have far fewer sales and revenue than Chang's Momofuku empire. According to The Guardian, Momofuku generated $50 million in 2023 sales, compared to the one- to three-person enterprises, mostly reporting under $1 million in annual revenue. 

Trademark issues over a centuries-old condiment

Whether the name "chili crunch" can actually be trademarked may be debatable to those in the business of making such foods. Some note centuries of history tied to the condiment, which is basically a spicy oil infused with chili peppers and mix-ins of crispy ingredients. A version of this product has long been marketed as "chili crisp," but recent re-branding efforts have embraced the word crunch. Momofuku to date owns only the trademark for "chile crunch," and is pursuing similar legal rights to the alternative spelling, "chili crunch."

Very similar, traditional ingredients comprise most chili crisps and crunches, and some folks in the food community have expressed disappointment over Momofuku's claim of "common law rights" to the name. According to the United States Copyright and Trademark Office (USPTO), issuing a descriptive U.S. trademark requires proof that the product has gained "distinctiveness through extensive use in commerce over many years." Accordingly, the Momofuku website noted a decade of perfecting the formula in its restaurants, a joint effort by Chang and the Momofuku Goods team. They describe it as a umami-based spicy-crunchy chili oil adding heat and texture to foods through three types of chilies, crunchy garlic and shallots, sesame seeds, and coconut sugar.

Whether the blind taste-test challenge from MiLA's content officer stands any chance of happening is yet to be seen. It nonetheless brings well-earned attention to issues of proprietary claims over historical and traditional dishes.