I recently got an email from a food/wine/lifestyle company I freelance for, and was pretty shocked by its contents. Effective immediately, all writers and editors were to cease using the term “kaffir” – and that is the last time I will use it in this piece.
As many of you may know, that term refers to a type of lime typically used in Thai food, but it has also become an “it” flavor in everything from vodkas to spice rubs. However, what most people DON’T know is that this term is the derogatory, racist equivalent of the “N-word” in many parts of the world, especially Southern Africa!
Various reasons why this word came to be such a racial slur are explored in a piece by Slate’s L.V. Anderson. To paraphrase, the Arabic spelling of the word with one “f” originally referred to non-Muslims, but it evolved (devolved?) as a way for white colonists to derogatorily describe black Africans (but not any other people of color, for which other equally offensive words were devised). By the 20th century, the k-word – now spelled with the two “f”s — was a pretty powerful insult, and you can imagine how that ferocity must have escalated in the inflamed social context of apartheid South Africa.
That said, the K-word is to this day an acceptable and inoffensive description of a certain ethnicity of Sri Lankans, who proudly describe themselves as such. Botanical references to a k-word lime found in Sri Lanka date back to 1910, and there are references to a “caffre” lime in an 1888 book about the citrus of India and Ceylon. Technically, then, it’s probable that the original reference to the lime came about quite innocently … but, then again, so did a lot of words that offend people. “Cafre,” in fact, is still a derogatory word in Spanish, implying someone of low class who is rude, boorish, uncouth, savage, brutal … you get the idea.
Sticks and stones notwithstanding, words can indeed hurt, so whatever the origin of the name, it deserves to be sidelined.
So what, then, are we to call these limes? The newly accepted term seems to be “makrut lime.” Indeed, that’s the word used by the people of Southeast Asia whom arguably make the best use of the limes in their cuisines and cultures – particularly in Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. While the very acidic juice is rarely used in food, the rind and especially the leaves are widely used, especially in curry pastes and tom yum (yummy!) soups.
Besides being a unique contribution to cuisine, the makrut lime proves to be a very versatile fruit for a number of other uses. The list includes: shampoo, cleanser/stain remover, deodorizer, and insecticide, as well as for medicinal purposes, dental hygiene, energizing aromatherapy, and beneficial digestion. The limes are even used in Cambodian religious services and most Thai families have a tree planted at the entrance of their property to ward off evil spirits.
So then, out with the K-word and in with the Makrut!
(And while we’re on the subject of name changes, and since it’s the start of the NFL season … yes, I am a lifelong fan of “the Washington team,” and yes, I think we need to change the name … or change the logo to a potato.)
— By Katy Budge