These Chicago Chili Crisps Chomp David Chang’s Chutzpah

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Last week, Asian Americans — including Chicago’s Anna Desai — felt knots of frustration while processing the condiment controversy instigated by Momofuku Goods, the grocery arm of celebrity chef David Chang’s empire. In March, Momofuku’s attorneys sent cease-and-desist orders to companies that used “chili crunch” and “chile crunch.”

It turns out that the terms chili crisp and chili crunch are sometimes interchangeable, something Momofuku didn’t know. The popularity of these condiments — used on ice cream, eggs, noodles, etc. —has skyrocketed in recent years. Momofuku filed for a U.S. trademark in 2023. Some argued the letters were ploys to seize control of the market. Others, including Momofuku CEO Marguerite Mariscal, countered saying Momofuku needed to show the government they were willing to defend their trademark or risk losing it. In the end, Momofuku lost the goodwill of several members of the AAPI community, including Desai. For years, Desai has used her Instagram platform to champion small and local businesses, many owned by BIPOC women. It may remind Chicagoans of the poke incident of 2018, where Aloha Poke made national headlines for sending cease and desists to restaurant owners who used “aloha” in their names. A difference is Chang is a member of the AAPI community, while the owners of Aloha Poke are not. But the similarity comes from two entities wanting control of a seemingly generic cultural term.

The backlash led to Chang backtracking, describing the letter as a misunderstanding. He explained what happened in a podcast late last week in which he apologized and announced Momofuku’s attorneys would stand down.

Desai, who was born in Hong Kong and moved to southern Illinois with her family as an infant, listened to that very special episode of The David Chang Show and says she was glad he apologized, though she still holds mixed feelings: “How do you claim this term when it really belongs to the culture?” she says.

After hearing about Momofuku’s legal shenanigans, Desai launched a four-part series ofbrands to support right now” spotlighting vendors who sell Asian condiments including Tasting India, Maa Maa Dei, and Guiz. She says she didn’t want to vilify Chang, but felt she needed to respond in an uplifting way. The posts received an outpouring of support across the country.

Desai’s parents are ethnically Chinese and were born in Vietnam. They ran a Chinese restaurant in St. Louis, which is how Desai’s interest in the restaurant industry grew. She established Over the Moon, a fundraiser where bakers created mooncakes filled with more approach fillings; Desai says her children weren’t so excited about traditional flavors, the kind her father bakes and sends annually to celebrate the Moon Festival. It’s not about brainwashing her kids into tradition, but rather, instilling in them an appreciation for original flavors. She refers to her parents’ love of spicy foods, something that wasn’t passed along to her. While heat isn’t her forte, she can still appreciate time-honored recipes that were passed along.

Inspired by Desai’s work, here are a few local vendors selling chile concoctions.

A jar of Bombay Chili Crunch. Tasting India

Tasting India’s Bombay Chili Crunch

Tasting India, the company founded by Jasmine Sheth, explores India’s diverse culinary traditions by offering a series of goods that amplify any home cook’s pantry. The Bombay Chili Crunch demonstrates this with a cumin-forward condiment that transports eaters to Chinese restaurants in India, where food tends to be spiced to the tastes of locals. It’s a contrast to Sichuan cooking and carves out a unique niche among chili crunch brands. It’s particularly tasty on Chinese American foods taking dishes like Mongolian Beef to new heights. Mushrooms give the blend a punch of umami.

A jar of Vargo Brother Ferments chili crisp. Here Here Market

Vargo Brother Ferments’ Chili Crisp

Chefs and spouses Sebastian Vargo and Taylor Hanna are best known in Chicago for their impressive and ever-evolving lineup of lacto-fermented pickles and krauts, but the duo has also earned a sizable following with their chili crisp. Made with smoked shiitakes and four types of chiles, it’s rich and fragrant yet balanced enough to serve in concert with delicate flavors. Vargo and Hanna recommend using a spoonful to punch up eggs, fried chicken, fish, and even pizza.

Two jars of Chilee Oil. Chilee Oil

Original CHILEE Chili Oil

Second-generation Korean American James Lee and wife Sufei Zhan cite two primary inspirations behind their local brand Chilee (pronounced “shy-lee”) Oil: Lao Gan Ma (literally the “old godmother” of chili oil brands), and Lee’s nonagenarian grandfather, who immigrated from South Korea to Chicago in the hope of greater opportunity. The couple even came up with their own riff on Lao Gan Ma’s packaging, swapping out a grainy photo of a grandmother for an illustration of Lee’s grandfather grinning up from the label. Packed with aromatics, it plays on a traditional flavor profile with a touch of sweetness from caramelized shallots.

A jar of Co-Op Sauce Garlic Chili Crisp Co-Op Sauce

Co-Op Sauce’s Garlic Chilli Crisp

Co-op Sauce, a favorite among Chicago’s hot sauce aficionados since its founding in 2003, leans heavily into the crunchy side of things with its pungent garlic chili crisp. Every spoonful of zingy oil is accompanied by crispy mounds of garlic, which translates into a flavor bomb that’s great for doctoring up a boring snack or bare-bones meal. It’s also nut-free, and thus more accessible for all kinds of diners.

A jar of Maa Maa Dei Chili Crisp Maa Maa Dei

Maa Maa Dei Chili Crisp – The OG

Jaye Fong, the one-woman band (read: baker and chef) behind sweet and savory Asian American pop-up Maa Maa Dei, has garnered a loyal following with her OG (mild) and Dragon (“WOOF-level spicy,” per Fong) chili crisps. That’s not surprising, as its complex flavor stems from more than 20 ingredients, including fried shallots and garlic, ginger threads, peanuts, and much more. Both varieties are sold out for the time being, but Fong says she’s planning another drop in early May. Keep an eye on her Instagram for a pre-order announcement.

A jar of Nam Prik Pao. Here Here Market

Pink Salt Kitchens Nam Prik Pao

A traditional Thai condiment, nam prik pao doesn’t fall neatly into the chili crisp category, but Chicago chef Palita Sriratana’s smokey, subtly sweet version is a noteworthy cousin. Sriratana describes the texture as “somewhere between a jam and an oil,” so there’s no crunch, but it still packs a spicy punch (those with tender tongues can cut it with honey to scale down the burn). There’s a vegan version and another variant with more heat.

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