In North America it's generally considered ignorant, offensive, and inappropriate (hell, downright racist) to call Brazil nuts by their colloquial nickname, "nigger toes." The first time someone brought it up to me I was shocked and appalled. Who on earth would say such a thing?! Indeed, I believe the first time I ever heard this word pronounced out loud was in pejorative slang for these otherwise tasty nuts.
The term is - for the most part - all but forgotten. A closed chapter in North American foodie history; one relegated to be forgotten in the assumption that racism is extinct. (How sadly untrue it is).
Still, for this reason I am surprised to find that we still refer to a certain ingredient so nonchalantly. We mention it over the table and in the store without care or reference. I and many others have said the word boldly without any any sort of retribution or consideration.
I speak of Kaffir limes.
First, you have to understand that in many countries, the term kaffir is equivalent to the word "nigger." They are, on an international translational and dialectical level, interchangeable. Indeed, within parts of African and Asia, the limes are called "K-limes." Even the Oxford Companion to Food suggests that it should be referred to as the makruk (or makrud) lime.
So what does Kaffir mean exactly?
Kaffir was, and in some places still is, used in reference to native southern Africans and utilized by Indians and ex-Pat whites living in parts of India, Africa, and Southern Asia. The term originated from the Arabic word kafir which means "ingrate" or "infidel" or "unbeliever" and was used to refer to people who did not believe in God or Muhammad as the prophet. It was a derogatory term that eventually moved across cultures and gained new meaning.
The term was eventually used within apartheid Africa and India where it referred to the native black population or those who had been displaced by the slave trade. Called kaffirs, they were considered dirty, uneducated, and ugly; people to be considered less than human compared to other classes and races.
Much like the Brazil nuts, racially nicknamed "nigger toes" due to their dark color and their - to some - unappealing appearance when in the shell, the kaffir lime is similarly named to reflect attitudes towards a certain group of people. Kaffir limes are bulgy, mottled, and supposedly not as pretty as the smooth and glossy skins of other varieties of lime such as the silver or Persian lime. From this was born the reference to the less aesthetically appearing lime as the "Kaffir lime."
Ironically, the makrut lime (as we shall refer it for the rest of this post) is a surprisingly diverse and multi-purposed fruit. The fruit is often used for its medicinal qualities in stopping infection and cleaning wounds. The oil from its skin acts as a natural insecticide. The double leaves are used as a spice in African, Indonesian, Thai, and Malaysian cooking. It is, needless to say, a diverse and talented plant that produces makrut limes and leaves. In fact in Indonesia the fruit is referred to as the jeruk obat or "medicine citrus."
So we are left with a decision to make, both as individuals and as a food community as a whole. How do we refer to this fruit, leaf, and flavor? Given, most people in North America (and maybe Europe? I don't know...) have no idea about the history of the word kaffir. However, I doubt anyone will know what I'm talking about if I go to Whole Foods and ask for some makrut lime leaves. Is it my place to preach, or should I just simply lay back and accept it? From Brazil nuts to now makrut limes, where do we draw lines from acceptance to education, from offensive to absent mindedness and lack of information? Now that the word and leaf itself are such a part of food dialogue, can it ever be changed?
Honestly, I feel that at this point in time, trying to shift everything over to calling it a makrud lime is impossible. However, relaying the information and history of the fruit's nomenclature is not. Indeed the education should be encouraged.
I would love to hear comments and further dialogue from readers about this topic so please feel free to leave your opinion in the comments or shoot me an e-mail.
A Note: I am using the "N-word" in whole to simply make my point. By refering to the word as "N-word" the impact of the offense of the word Kaffir in comparison would be lessened and, therefore, use of the word "nigger" gives more meaning to the argument. Furthermore, fear and societal repudiation of a word in itself only gives the word more power over our linguistic freedom and empowers the word's meaning. I mean no disrespect or harm in any way.
Photo Copyright © 2005 David Monniaux
This post was originally posted back in 2007.