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Lao Gan Ma was in fridges long before Momofuku's chili crunch was in headlines

Lao Gan Ma, the fiery condiment that’s a staple in countless immigrant homes, deserves its flowers, Asian Americans say.
Photo Illustration: A jar of Lao Gan Ma on a pedestal
Lao Gan Ma is a mix of deep red fried chilies, oil, peanuts and MSG.Justine Goode / NBC News; Getty Images

Criticism of celebrity chef David Chang and his Momofuku brand erupted recently after the company cried foul at fellow Asian-led chili oil companies over use of the term “chili crunch.” Chang subsequently apologized and said he wouldn't enforce the trademarked phrase.

All the same, the furor has renewed love for Lao Gan Ma spicy chili crisp, an iconic condiment that many of Asian descent, particularly Chinese Americans, associate with home. 

Earlier this month, The Guardian reported that Chang’s food empire, which makes Momofuku Chili Crunch, had sent cease-and-desist letters to a number of chili oil companies, many of them small mom-and-pop operations. Momofuku demanded they stop using the term “chili crunch,” a trademark the food giant bought last year after it was sued by Denver-based company Chile Colonial for “trademark infringement.” Momofuku’s letters sought to prevent the other companies from using the phrase, though it doesn’t prevent the creation of chili sauces. The day after this article initially published, Change issued an apology.

“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,” Chang said on an episode of his podcast Friday. “There’s a lot of chefs that I’m friends with. There’s a lot of people that are upset, customers, and that’s the last thing — literally the last thing — that I wanted to happen.”

Before his decision to no longer enforce the trademark, many Asian Americans said that if the “OG” chili oil — Lao Gan Ma — has found prolonged success without having to “bully” other businesses, Momofuku shouldn’t do so, either. And others said the nostalgia-packed staple with the recognizable Asian auntie logo deserves its flowers. In many Chinese American households, the condiment, an alluring mix of deep red fried chilies, oil, peanuts and MSG, is as ubiquitous as Morton’s salt.  

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

Asian Americans and avid foodies alike point out that Lao Gan Ma’s chili sauce predates newer products by decades — including Momofuku’s, which launched in 2018. Chang, who has been open about his own love of Lao Gan Ma, nodded to it in his recent statement.

“When we were thinking about naming — and again, shame on me if I didn’t know this — but we named it chili crunch specifically because it was not chili crisp,” Chang said of Momofuku's condiment. “And we named it chili crunch because it was out of deference to chili crisp, which we associated with as Chinese, specifically carved out by Lao Gan Ma.”

Lao Gan Ma hasn’t sought to trademark the name of its oil in the U.S., though it has taken steps to protect the logo associated with it. According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office database, the sauce’s manufacturing company, Guiyang Nanming Laoganma Special Flavour Foodstuffs, filed for a trademark in 2001 for the “illustration drawing which includes words/letters/numbers” of its logo. A 2002 application, which has since been abandoned, was submitted for the image of the iconic woman on the jar. 

Asian Americans point out that the condiment has thrived for decades, quietly remaining a fixture in Asian immigrant pantries across the country. Cecilia Xia, a Chinese American based in Los Angeles, said her parents would regularly pick up jars at the Chinese grocery store 99 Ranch. She doesn’t remember the moment the sauce was introduced to her — it was just always in the fridge.

“One of the vivid memories that I have is, after school, trying to come up with creative snacks for myself,” said Xia, who works in tech. “That’s what I remember from my childhood — taking Lao Gan Ma and putting it on pizzas.” 

Wang, who immigrated to the U.S. for college, said she could count on the sauce to adorn the tables of any Chinese restaurant she visited. For her, it was always a comforting sight, especially the apron-wearing auntie on the front of the jar, which conjured up feelings of home, from the people to the food.  

“She looks like my nainai, my grandmother. It’s that old short-hair, post-Cultural Revolution haircut,” Wang said. “It’s this nostalgia for the classics that have withstood the test of time.”

The latest chatter began in March, when Momofuku sent cease-and-desist letters to businesses including Homiah, a Malaysian food brand known for its Sambal Chili Crunch. Momofuku lawyers demanded 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 infringes on Momofuku’s trademark rights by “creating an obvious risk that consumers will mistakenly believe that Homiah’s Chili Crunch goods are associated with Momofuku.”

Michelle Tew, Homiah’s founder, compared receiving the letter to a “punch in the gut.” 

Homiah‘s Sambal Chili Crunch product is personal and based on a family recipe from my Granny Nonie dating back to countless generations of Nyonya heritage in Penang, Malaysia,” Tew wrote. “I was shocked and disappointed that a well-known and respected player in the Asian food industry would legally threaten me — a one-woman show operating on a much smaller scale — from selling a product that is part of my family’s history and culture.”

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

In his comments Friday, Chang acknowledge the criticism: “I spent the greater part of my adult life trying to bring light to Asian food, Asian American food, Asian identity, what it means to be Asian American. I understand why people are upset and I’m truly sorry.”

In a statement shared with NBC News prior to Chang's apology, a Momofuku spokesperson said the company stands alongside Asian American and Pacific Islander brands. But the spokesperson added that it noticed “multiple businesses” that sold chili crisp products rebranded to use the term “Chili Crunch” and said Momofuku itself had previously been sued by Chile Colonial, which makes a Mexican-inspired sauce. 

“When we created our product, we wanted a name we could own and intentionally picked ‘Chili Crunch’  to further differentiate it from the broader chili crisp 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 Chile Colonial to purchase the trademark from them. They have defended the trademark previously against companies like Trader Joe’s.”

Lao Gan Ma, which translates to “old godmother,” was introduced by a woman named Huabi Tao in 1984, according to the company’s website. The sauce is drawn from popular flavors of Guizhou province. It was used in households decades before similar condiments were drizzled on haute cuisine. 

“It was this thing that you always had on your table or in your cooking, and then all of a sudden, these things became popular, and people started having a name for it: ‘chili crisp,’” said Anita Mannur, a professor at Miami University whose research includes food studies.  

Unlike Momofuku and many of the newer brands that have entered the food industry, Mannur said, Lao Gan Ma has no extensive marketing strategy in the U.S. The brand isn’t tied to buzzy celebrity chefs, nor does the price point reflect the current trendiness of chili crisp. 

And the woman on the bottle, Mannur said, adds another layer of comfort. 

“The difference between that and, say, Aunt Jemima or Uncle Ben is that it might be familiar, but it’s not rooted in a racist history,” Mannur said. “She’s one of us.” 

Still, many say, no two brands are exactly the same. And given Lao Gan Ma’s long-term success, some Asian Americans felt it was time for Momofuku and other brands to take a page out of the godmother’s book and keep the space open to all. 

“I own all of these brands of chili crisp, and I use them for different dishes, and I appreciate the differences and the distinctions and all of the flavors and textures and differences in the formulation,” Xia said. “We have room for multiple moisturizers and serums when we buy skin care. So we should be able to appreciate chili crisp in the same way.” 

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