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Brand selling 'improved' congee 'for the Western' palate stirs up controversy

The Breakfast Cure's founder, Karen Taylor, calls herself the "Queen of Congee."
Congee, a rice porridge, is a staple dish in many Asian cultures.Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

The Breakfast Cure, a brand that claims to have "improved" congee, an Asian rice porridge, is facing backlash online after a tweet highlighting the product went viral.

Congee is a staple dish in many Asian cultures and most commonly refers to the Chinese version of the dish. In other countries, it's known by other names — like juk in Korea, bubur in Indonesia and cháo in Vietnam — and the word "congee" is an English term derived from the word "kanji," from the Tamil language of India. Often eaten at breakfast or as a snack, congee is a rice porridge, and chefs and home cooks alike have different ways of preparing it.

Founded in 2017 by acupuncturist Karen Taylor, who is white and calls herself the "Queen of Congee," the Breakfast Cure sells several different flavors of congee packaged for easy cooking. It's far from the first brand to sell congee, but many people are taking issue with the way Taylor referred to the food as being "improved" by her interpretation of it.

"I've spent a lot of time modernizing (congee) for the Western pallet [sp] - 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," Taylor wrote in a blog post on the site entitled "How I discovered the miracle of congee and improved it."

In the same post, Taylor noted that she was introduced to congee "about 20 years ago" while in "Chinese medical school" in New Mexico. On another part of the website, Taylor refers to her product as a "gourmet, foodie" version of congee, and in a video interview shared on the site, she called congee, which has been part of Asian cuisine for millennia, "the new frontier." In the same interview, she refers to it as a "sort of weird thing" that Americans needed specific instructions on how to make.


Taylor's site also makes medical claims about the "healing" effects of congee and includes a link to an article she had published in the July 2019 edition of the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine. In the article, Taylor wrote that it was her "personal mission to hear 'congee' uttered as a common household word.'"

"(Acupuncturists) are the ones who can bring congee and all its healing powers to the people around us," Taylor wrote. "As acupuncturists, we understand why it's actually good for everyone. … Chinese medicine provides us a vantage point that allows us to see beyond trendy fads and draw instead on our beautiful, time-tested traditions."

On Twitter, many criticized Taylor for positioning herself as a congee pioneer despite its long history and enduring popularity. Casey Ho, whose tweet highlighting the Breakfast Cure's Instagram went viral over the weekend, referred to it as cultural appropriation.

Others pointed out that the Breakfast Cure's website did not have any comments or support about the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, and only glancingly mentioned the history of the food.

Taylor told TODAY Food in a phone interview that she was surprised by the response since she had been "embraced by the Chinese medicine community" when she first launched the product, recalling an excited response at a conference for acupuncturists. She also noted that many of the teachers at the school where she learned about congee were "from China."

Taylor added that she was aware of the controversy online and could "really hear what people (were) saying." She said that she and her team are already "evaluating the language that offended people" and would be making changes, including changing their tagline.

"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," said Taylor. "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."

Taylor said that she has not been able to have any dialogue so far because many of the comments she was receiving were "offensive," but "is interested in a dialogue" with those who start conversations in good faith. She also responded to complaints that her site did not address violence against the Asian community in the U.S.

"In America, we really need to address systemic racism and I am totally committed to that, just to be super clear about that," Taylor said. "But I also feel that we need to heal ourselves from an epidemic of obesity and broken digestion … It's pretty serious, and the wisdom from Chinese medicine offers a lot of potential healing for that."