A real Karen decided that congee needed a ‘modern adaptation’ for Western palate

Society & Culture

Another American company is in trouble online for culturally appropriating Chinese cuisine, and selling it with marketing language full of “wellness” clichés but lacking any acknowledgment of the source of the dish.

breakfast cure
Image from the Breakfast Cure’s Instagram

Another week, another accusation of cultural appropriation: This time around the lightning rod is the Breakfast Cure, an American food startup that sells prepackaged congee, a staple porridge dish popular in China and other Asian countries. The Oregon-based company markets itself as offering a variety of congee, some new creations, some true to the “ancient tradition,” but all based on “Chinese medicine” and said to “build Spleen Qi and Yang.” 

The company’s marketing language has drawn ire from many social media users who have accused it of “gentrifying” and “whitewashing” congee while blatantly ignoring its Chinese roots.

According to an earlier version of its website — which has since been changed — the Breakfast Cure was founded in 2017 by acupuncturist Karen Taylor, who appears to be white and describes herself as the “Queen of Congee.” In a blog post explaining how she “discovered the miracle of congee” and embarked on a quest to “improve it,” Taylor wrote that after she first tasted congee “about 20 years ago” while in “Chinese medical school” in New Mexico, she was deeply intrigued by the concept of slow cooking grains and decided to create a “modern adaptation” of the dish.

Appropriation or modernization? 

“I’ve spent a lot of time modernizing it for the Western palette — 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,” she said in the original post.

In a video promoting the business, Taylor calls congee, which has been around in Asia for thousands of years, a “new frontier” that’s more accessible than other forms of Chinese medicine like acupuncture. In the same video, she remarks that the Breakfast Cure was born out of her desire to allow American people to be “confident and comfortable” making “this sort of weird thing” at home.

In its most basic form, congee is just rice and water, simmered together over slow heat for hours until it’s thick and creamy. Fairly flavorless on its own, congee is usually seasoned with a wide range of savory toppings. While this is the usual way congee is cooked and enjoyed in Asian countries, Taylor’s offerings are westernized, or, as she initially put it, “modernized.” 

The Breakfast Cure’s website currently lists 13 combinations of ingredients that are sold in individual packets ready for easy cooking, all of which are priced at $14.95. Except for “Three Treasures,” which is savory and contains key ingredients in Chinese medicine, like Longan Fruit and red jujube dates, the rest of the flavors are all inauthentic renderings of traditional congee, ranging from “Pineapple Paradise,” which is made of tropical fruits like pineapple and coconut, to “Om Berry,” which is described as a “delectable three-berry superfood breakfast.”

The China Vibe.

Subscribe to The China Vibe, our society and culture newsletter, to get a free weekly roundup of the most interesting stories from China.

Twitter user Casey Ho called out the Breakfast Cure for cultural appropriation, starting a wave of criticism, with many accusing it of “gentrifying” the traditional Asian dish and neglecting to acknowledge its cultural origins.

“I’d like to introduce Karen to Cream of Wheat, the traditional congee of caucasians. Technically farina, not congee, but there’s also a rice version. Produced in the U.S. since 1883, super affordable!  No cultural appropriate required!  (How is her name actually Karen, though?),” one person wrote on Twitter. 

Another noted, “It’s not even the different take on congee, as I’m all about trying out new things for everyone. And if it is improving one’s health: Great! It’s the apparent disrespectful appropriation and cringe marketing BS around it that is giving me a headache.”

As some critics pointed out, despite profiting off of something that’s considered to be the ultimate comfort food in Asian culture, the Breakfast Cure’s website had no mention of the recent rise of hate crimes against Asians in the U.S. 

Not everyone thought the backlash was warranted. At one point, Chris Stewart, the producer and host of The History of China podcast, tweeted: “I’m not sure if I’m less surprised that: 1) a woman named Karen decided that congee -just over-boiled rice porridge- was the eXoTiC dIsH she was going to gentrify 2) China Twitter got up-in-arms about cultural appropriation of a dish…with its roots in southern India.” 

Breakfast Cure responds

Nonetheless, in response to the backlash, the Breakfast Cure updated its website with a new statement of mission, in which the company apologized for falling short of “supporting and honoring the Asian American community.” 

“We take full responsibility for any language on our website or in our marketing and have taken immediate steps to remedy that and educate ourselves,” it wrote, adding that it had revised its mission “to not just creating delicious breakfast meals, but becoming a better ally for the AAPI community.”

In an Instagram post today, the company further elaborated on the steps it’s taking to fulfill its commitment, announcing that it will donate 1% of all sales or 10% of profit, whichever is larger, to Asian Americans Advancing Justice

SupChina reached out to the Breakfast Cure for comment but has not heard back.

The controversy surrounding the Breakfast Cure is a familiar story, one that involves an Asian product being whitewashed to cater to Western audiences and sold at a markup. The incident echoes the swift demise of Lucky Lee’s, the fast-casual Chinese American restaurant in New York that closed after less than a year in business following viral outrage over marketing language that was perceived as racist. Earlier this year, the Mahjong Line, a Dallas-based company founded by three young white women, was forced to apologize after receiving fierce backlash for its “modern makeover” of Mahjong, the popular tile game that has been played in China since the 19th century.