A company called Breakfast Cure that sells pre-mixed kits for congee has stepped on a lot of toes by claiming that it had “improved” the traditional dish by turning it into a “gourmet, foodie” dish, TODAY reports. The online backlash caused a stir. Now the founder, Karen Taylor, is claiming that she thought her product was a perfectly sound marketing decision.
Congee is a rice porridge that has been served for millenia across Asia, and it has many names. The word “congee” is derived from the Tamil name in India, which is “kanji.” I’m familiar with the Korean version, called juk. Some people consider it a breakfast food, others a snack. For me—and many others—it’s a comfort dish for when I’m not feeling so good.
Taylor is white. She’s an acupuncturist whose business is based in Oregon. The reason for the complaints isn’t that she’s selling congee packets (which is fine), it’s that she’s claiming that she’s “improved” upon it.
On the front page of her website, Taylor claims that the packets are “gourmet and foodie-focused.” In a blog post, which has been since edited, she writes, “I’ve spent a lot of time modernizing [congee] for the Western pallet [sic] - making a congee that you can eat and find delicious and doesn’t seem foreign, but delivers all of the medicinal healing properties of this ancient recipe.” I didn’t know that congee was all that difficult to eat, considering it’s soft boiled rice. But sometimes it’s made with “exotic” ingredients such as ginger and soy sauce, which must be extremely spicy for some people.
Taylor writes that she first learned about congee “about 20 years ago” when she attended a “Chinese medical school” in New Mexico. In a video interview that’s since been taken down, she claimed that congee (again, a three-millennia-old dish) was “the new frontier.” She also described it as a “sort of weird thing” that required specific instruction for Americans. Congee, she continued, is “healing,” and it’s her “personal mission to hear ‘congee’ uttered as a common household word.”
But if you’re going to fashion yourself as some sort of trailblazer, I’m trying to understand why on earth you’d do it with a dish that’s so old.
The tweet that set the whole controversy in motion was from user @caseyho, who called Breakfast Cure a case of cultural appropriation. “So a group of colonizers decided to culturally appropriate congee,” Ho wrote. “Good lord.” The tweet included screenshots from the Breakfast Cure Instagram account, including photos of Taylor’s staff, which appeared to be all white.
Another Twitter user, Frankie Huang, added, “Jokes aside, a couple things: 1)@BreakfastCure can taut [sic] Chinese tradition and recipes with no worry for being called ‘disgusting’ because white ladies are at the helm 2) Their website is devoid of support for actual Asians or denouncement for anti-Asian hatred and violence.”
Taylor spoke with TODAY in a phone interview. She said she could, “really hear what people [were] saying,” in regards to the controversy. She promised the company would make changes and said that she and her team were “evaluating the language that offended people.”
“I am really sorry for anything insensitive that I’ve said or that has caused any pain or suffering to anyone; that is so far from my intention,” she continued. “It’s been a very humbling few days and I’ve hoped some kind of productive dialogue could come out of it, because I love to have authentic conversations and explore how I could do better, because I am trying, and obviously I’ve missed some really important things.”