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American chef’s attempt to acquire the name ‘chili crunch’ sparks anger in Indonesia, Malaysia

In Medan, Indonesia, Michelle Tew, the proprietor of the Malaysian food company Homiah, experienced a mix of sadness and betrayal upon receiving a cease and desist letter from renowned American-Korean chef David Chang last month.

The letter notified Tew that within 90 days, she must discontinue using the phrase “chili crunch” on her sambal product labels. This is because Chang had successfully trademarked the term, which refers to a widely-enjoyed chili-based condiment in Southeast Asia.

David Chang holds significant influence in the Asian-American culinary scene, and Tew expressed feeling a personal connection to this issue, despite not having a personal relationship with Chang.

Tew added, “The Asian food community is like a family, and it’s disconcerting to consider targeting a woman-owned business without having a friendly conversation first. I couldn’t help but wonder where his empathy was in this situation.”

David Chang, the proprietor of the Momofuku restaurant empire in the United States and previously known for his trademark dispute, started selling “Chili Crunch” jars in 2020. However, he is not the pioneer in introducing this type of product to the market.

For centuries, spicy condiments derived from chilies have been a staple in Asian cuisine, known by various names like chilli crunch, chilli crisp, and chilli oil, depending on their texture and ingredient proportions.

Tew, who was taught by her Malaysian grandmother, decided to name her product “Sambal Chili Crunch.” This choice was made because sambal, which consists of ingredients such as chillies, shrimp paste, garlic, and palm sugar, is not well-known outside of Southeast Asia. To help foreign audiences understand the concept, she needed a suitable name.

Trademarking generic food terms is not exclusive to Chang or the US food and beverage industry.

Arie Parikesit, the proprietor of Kelana Rasa food and tour company, mentioned that Chang attempted to “monopolize” the term “chili crunch.” He added that there have been comparable situations in his home country, Indonesia.

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