Kaffir lime (Citrus hystrix) and its leaf, once hardly known to the average North American, is gaining in popularity. Many of us have only recently begun to hear of this lime and its leaf, usually in the context of a lovely Southeast Asian dish. But as it grows in popularity, it is becoming increasingly mainstream, appearing on the menus of non-Southeast Asian restaurants such as Bernardin in NYC and Earls and PiDGiN in Vancouver. Perhaps it’s an example of our much-lauded multiculturalism, except that this lime’s most commonly known name in North America—kaffir lime (henceforth referred to as “K-lime”)—involves a horrible racial epithet, akin to using the N-word in North America.
An Encyclopedia of Swearing by Geoffrey Hughes notes the original meaning of the K-word is derived from the Arabic kafir, which means an unbeliever of Islam, also known as an infidel. It was used by Arab traders to refer to the indigenous peoples of Africa, then taken up by Portuguese sailors and subsequently picked up by Dutch and British colonists, especially in South Africa. By the 1800s, it was viewed as a racial slur and became increasingly taboo, and by 1976 the K-word was actionable in court in South Africa as crimen injuria. Some readers may recall that apartheid only ended in 1994, so the fact that this term was considered an affront to a person’s dignity prior to the abolition of apartheid should give cause for pause. Food writer Mick Vann has explained that the K-word was linked to the lime because the non-white workers used this lime in their cooking.
The accelerating ubiquitousness of the K-lime term is of concern, because as the machinery of our mass consumerist, food-obsessed society in North America becomes more accustomed to the lime with its current name, there is a distinct possibility that it will become mainstream, an everyday ingredient that we “need” and demand—and a racist term will become embedded in our culture. Economics drives the globalization engine that brought these limes into our grocery stores, and there is no denying that there is a link between economic and cultural globalization. However, it does not mean we must also import the K-word, with all its cultural and racist connotations, when there is no reason to give these limes this name, as these limes are not called K-limes in Southeast Asia where they originate.
Some may argue that this lime’s name in North America is unrelated to its racist meanings in South Africa, but I disagree. Material culture studies by academics may wish to describe this as a matter of social dualism, where the physical lime has no bearing on the issues of racism, colonialism, slavery, class, ethnicity, and economics that the K-lime’s name comes wrapped up in, but I do not accept that it is okay to use a term that is offensive, insulting, and derogatory just because “I don’t mean it that way.”
It seems that despite the K-word’s racist history and current meaning, North American gourmands insist on blithely calling this lime by its racist name, even though there is a perfectly acceptable and well-known alternative name for it: makrut. It is commonly called this in Thailand, a region that boasts many recipes and uses for this lime. So I say: hey North America, time to wake up and stop using this racist word! This is an opportunity for consumers in North America to dig a bit deeper and ask questions about the origins and meanings of terms we use that might be offensive, and also to question and decide what type of society we wish to be—a society that does not think “it’s a big deal” or a society that does care how we appropriate and use cultural terms and objects.
The KaffirNoMore campaign invites you to post photos of menus, recipes, and signs using the K-lime term and tag the establishment that is using it, with the goal of educating and encouraging businesses and people to stop using the racist term and instead use makrut limes.