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Shake Shack catches flak for 'lazy' take on Korean fried chicken

The limited-edition menu features a "gochujang-glazed crispy chicken breast" over "white kimchi slaw and toasted sesame seeds."
"I am not a purist when it comes to Asian food," said Korean American food writer Noah Cho. "I just get irritated when it’s lazy."
"I am not a purist when it comes to Asian food," said Korean American food writer Noah Cho. "I just get irritated when it’s lazy."Shake Shack
/ Source: TODAY

Shake Shack is catching flak for a limited-edition menu of "Korean-style" offerings that critics say is a "lazy" interpretation of Korean fried chicken.

The menu, which launched in the U.S. last week, features a "gochujang-glazed crispy chicken breast" over "white kimchi slaw and toasted sesame seeds," according to a release. There are also Korean Gochujang Chick’n Bites and Korean Gochujang Fries, which are served with "spicy-sweet gochujang mayo sauce."

This week, as the sandwich rolled out to restaurants, many food writers and Korean Americans expressed criticism online about the sandwich.

"This is … so boring. yes, slap some gochujang on something and it’s korean," Giaae Kwon, a New York-based food writer tweeted. "this is just so lazy, i can’t even be insulted because that would be a waste of energy on my end."

Noah Cho, a Korean American food writer based in the Bay Area, told TODAY Food that he agrees with that sentiment.

"What it really boils down to for me is that I don’t think they really thought about what makes Korean fried chicken Korean," he explained. "They seem to think gochujang was the primary ingredient."

Cho explained that it's just a flavor, one of many used in Korean fried chicken. The real key to Korean-style fried chicken is in the double-frying method, he said.

"They fry the chicken, then let it cool, then fry it again," he explained. "The cliché they use to describe it is 'shatteringly crisp.'"

He added that, while Korean fried chicken is typically covered in sauce, gochujang is just one of many options.

"I just take issue with the idea that gochujang makes something Korean," Cho said, adding that he's "pretty tired" of the cultural appropriation conversation.

"I don’t begrudge anybody that wants to make Korean food, and I don’t think I would have cared if Shake Shake had made a Korean fried chicken, if they’d done it the way I’d described it," he continued. "I think the laziness is always where people get irked. I’m not a purist. I put cheese on ramen — I’m well known for that. I am not a purist when it comes to Asian food. I just get irritated when it’s lazy."

When asked for comment, a Shake Shack spokesperson told TODAY, "As a global business with more than 300 Shacks across the world, we’re always inspired by local flavors and cuisines in markets where we operate. The Gochujang Chick’n Shack that is served in our South Korea Shacks was developed by our local team.

"It was so beloved in South Korea that we were excited to bring a version of it stateside. Our team worked closely with our culinary partners in South Korea to develop a version that remained true to what we serve in South Korea."

The statement goes on to say that the chain "partnered with Chong Choi, the Korea-born founder of Choi’s Kimchi Company in Portland, who made us a custom blend of kimchi for our slaw."

"We called our sandwich Korean-style because it was inspired by traditional Korean fried chicken, but we recognize it’s not the same," the statement continues. "We felt it was important to share the influence behind the menu."

While Shake Shack has not implemented any changes so far, it said that "Listening to our guests and the community is essential and we welcome all feedback that can help us better represent the food we serve, including its cultural origins. And we encourage our guests to explore the many amazing restaurants that feature incredible, inspiring food from Korean chefs across the globe."

"It’s not that egregious," Cho told TODAY, with a sigh. "It’s more like they tried. They got it wrong but they tried."

EDITOR'S NOTE (Jan. 12, 2021, 11:01 a.m. EST): This article has been updated with a statement from Shake Shack.