Racial Slurs and Citrus

Thursday, November 12, 2009

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.


  1. Maybe it's time for people to remake slang terms? It's been done before, especially with religious slang.

    Instead of pushing for a word change maybe it would be easy to change the meaning of the word. I know the limes in question as yummy and healthy. Maybe we should push that meaning of the K-word?

  2. I am not black but I am brown. I knew from a very young age what it is like to be prejudiced against, to be judged, to be enveloped and measured by incorrect assumptions. The words used against me I would never use against others nor would I use it within family or friend circles.

    But the n-word is different. Its history is huge and its not mine. Any sort of taking back or using of the n word is not for me to do. For this reason, I would never use it, especially to appear familiar with someone who is black (like so many clueless rap-poseur white kids seem to do).

    Its my sense that the n-word is used within the black community - thats wholly their business/domain. I really do not think they would welcome it being used by non-black community members in any way. Thats my sense of it.

    If there is any question, try to imagine yourself a small questioning and somewhat overwhelmed child in a world where this potent word is used for you, against you, as you.

    There are better things to call your fellow man, such as:

    friend, colleague, mentor, teacher, lover, neighbor, etc.

  3. A wonderful, thoughtful discussion, Garrett. You totally nailed it with "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."

    6 Degrees

  4. I think you bring up a really great point. Often people don't spend a lot of time thinking about the meaning or origins of what they're saying and inadvertently hurt/offend others. I agree that it would be virtually impossible to change the name of the fruit at this point, but I also think that being educated about the roots of the word allows us to be more sensitive when/if using the term. As with any topic, education is the one weapon with which we can fight ignorance. Thank you for a thought provoking entry :).

  5. 6 Degrees - Thank you, though I say that, I admit, with some trepidation. I am not black so I can never really have a clear outlook of the word's effect. Still, as a gay person, I understand the word "fag". Honestly, it doesn't bother me and I shrug it off when I hear it. Actually I use it quite a bit myself when poking fun at my gay friends. Still, I don't think the two words carry quite the same weight, but that's my individual opinion.

  6. Well you learn something new every day!

    My thought on the matter is that we all know the "N-word" to be wrong. The word has had a history here in America, a long history, of being a racial slur, disrespectful and ignorant. I would never, ever use that word even if I were referring to nuts.

    On the other hand the "K-word" does not have such a history in the USA. We have never used the word in a degrading or demeaning way. It has (as far as I am aware) always been the name for that type of citrus. And a very delicious citrus as that.

    Today "N-word" continues to carry the meaning it has had throughout America's history, but the "K-word" never has. So while I would never want to promote the any type of hatred, bigotry, racist speech or just down right meanness, when is a word just a word? Does the word have meaning in itself or are we, as the speakers or as the listeners the ones who give it meaning?

    Thanks for the informative post. Education is the first step in change.

  7. i honestly had no idea about the word keffir! i have frequently used the term followed by "lime leaves" over the past 5 years since I learned about the leaves from a boss. This whole time I thought that was the name of the plant. Great post and much thanks for bringing that to light, as I would never want to blatantly use derogatory terms while writing recipes or posts!

  8. Wow, been a long time since I heard "nigger toes!" My 73-year-old mum still uses the term occasionally, in much the same way y'all use "kaffir lime;" she's not racist, but that what everyone called them when she grew up.

    There are other, similar terms: To "jew someone down" on the price of something, or to get "gypped," which is a reference to shady dealings by Gypsies.

    As for Kaffir limes, as a student of African history I know full well what that word means. I honestly have never used them, in part because of their name. Silly, I know, because the fruit itself isn't racist...

    But still. Would I have reached for them if their name wasn't so offensive? Dunno.

  9. I did not connect the word kaffir with kaffir lime. Interesting to know the background of the word. I think it is possible to change the name. They did it with Chinese gooseberries to Kiwifruit.

  10. Ooh - thank you for this! That's terrible! I feel so ignorant and I'm really glad you've enlightened me on this.

  11. I had no idea! I'm with Ashleystravel, I always thought that it was just the name of the plant...

  12. I always feel so much more informed when I read things like this and the better for it. From now on I will call them by there correct name. Thank you Garret.

  13. Thanks for sharing that information! I had no idea prior to reading this post about either nickname.

    Sadly, I don't there there are enough people who would recognize the actual meaning or insinuations of the word kaffir for it to make any difference. Unlike the nickname for Brazil nuts, which is rather blatantly offensive.

    This leads me to think how heavily one should consider intent within diction. Should the person who means exactly what they say, in some way be held more accountable? I personally think so, which is why I will try to remember use the name Makrud Limes from now on. Thanks again - great post!

  14. Thanks for the education. Perhaps if we all shared your post, like a giant chain letter, we could help with this movement for change. I'll be sure to link.

  15. A similar case in the Netherlands, yes 'us of the bad colonial past and slave trade': we have a pastry that used to be called: negerzoenen: n-word-kisses: chocolate filled with cream. It is now sold under a different name - I never ate them, so I don't know it - but it was a major item a couple of years ago on the 20.00hrs National News. The black newsreporter gave us viewers the 'last Negerzoen' SMACK in front of the camera. She thought it a useless change.
    The same goes for Moorkoppen (N-wordheads) changed to Bossche Bollen (Puffpastry filled with cream and coated with chocolate).
    And the discussion of the Black Peter as companion to Santa Claus is still a recurrent debate, with the ad hoc result that Black Peters are now intelligent, well speaking human beings, instead of dumb, pidgin speaking servants.
    We've still got a long way to go... racist, sexist words still being thought 'normal' rather than the exception.

  16. No suggestions on what to call them, but thank you for the educational post.

  17. Thanks for the information, Garrett. I had no idea that the k-word was a derogatory term. As to the n-toes, my uncle, unfortunately, still calls them that, and he has less than kind feelings towards African Americans. How ironic is is then that he loves the Brazil nuts!
    I don't have any suggestions for renaming this fruit, but thanks again for such a thought-provoking, educational entry.

  18. Funny that I should run across your entry literally 4 days after I heard, for the first time in my life, someone talk about how Brazil Nuts used to be called n-- toes. (Apparently his mother called them that). I was shocked enough that he, as a white man, would say the word out loud, which goes to show the taboo nature of it in my family. As an anthropologist I am intrigued by the meaning of words and how meaning changes depending on the context and on who is saying the word, and I must admit that even though I knew the word kaffir was derogotory, I never thought about it when reading the words "kaffir lime". But it is something I will keep in mind from now on. I appreciate you boldly discussing this touchy topic-thanks for a great, thoughtful, post.

  19. Love this post! I learned something, and that's the best part!

    Personally, I try to take words like my cat or my horse takes them... they might not understand the WORDS but they understand my MEANING if I'm irritated or loving. They know what I MEAN.

    However, to some people, the word, no matter how innocently (or well-meaningly)spoken is hurtful. I have a hard time reconciling someone who cannot see my intent, for the words I have used have blinded them to my heart.

    But, if I use such a word, and they are blinded or hurt, then I have indeed injured our communication, our trust, our ability to relate as humans.

    Although I wish people could read my HEART in the words I say, I have to make room for those who cannot. For the goal is true communication, and anything that stands in the way of that goal (not matter how trivial or great) is my enemy.

    Thanks again!

  20. Just wanted you to know that I found this post very informative. I never realized that that was a colloquilisim for Brazil nuts. Nor did I know about Kaffir being a slur. I am studying Asian Studies as my major, and now I have something new to look into in my race and culture class. More about Kaffir to come! Thank you!
    ps. I always love your site, you will never piss me off!!

  21. Really enlightening post I had no idea of the history or connotations of "kaffir" as a derogatory term. The limes are not the only word in this situation either. Here in the UK there is a traditional offal based meatball called a "faggot" and obviously the word has developed in more recent years into a derogatory term. In this case im not sure it has any actual connection though as "faggot" wasnt original used as a homophobic insult.

  22. who knew? as for brazil nuts...that colloquial name is what we still call them in my family.

  23. I agree with ashleystravel. When it comes to language, context and culture are important. Calling brazil nuts “n-word toes” is offensive in the United States because the n-word is a historically derogatory term. This is different from kaffir. This term lacks any historical importance in the United States. Most people do not know the word at all, and if they do, they likely associate it with a type of lime.

    A very important parallel is the word “fag”. A derogatory term used in the US used to refer to homosexuals. But in England a fag is a cigarette, always has been. Nobody seems to be offended by that. I have never heard of any campaigns, British or American, to stop the use of fag to refer to cigarettes, and the two countries share the same language and have many cultural similarities.

    The inoffensiveness and meaningless of the word is emphasized by the need to provide a 10 paragraph explanation of why the word is offensive. If you need 10 paragraphs to tell the average reader and me why a word is offensive, then it is not offensive.

    We have to resist the easy temptation to tell people to not use a word because it offends somebody, somewhere. We must look at the context and cultural history to guide our use of language.

  24. Interesting discussion! As a perennial, serial advocate of long-shot causes from Linux to Libertarianism, I know well the conundrum you face in trying to decide how to approach this issue. Unless you're prepared to make it your personal crusade, perhaps it's best for your sanity to simply quietly take the right path yourself, and gently correct others when they question you? Your post offered a great perspective, and it's the aggregate of many small decisions and conversations (like this one) from equally-as-many individuals that often drives much larger paradigm shifts.

  25. I must be ignorant. I had no idea about these slang terms. I just assume the "K" lime was a type completely unaware of the real meaning. Thank you so must for this post. I have been enlightened and I agree it is time to rename things and forgo the racial slangs.

  26. Things get renamed all the time. What was once called rapeseed oil is now canola oil. Dolphin fish is now known as mahi mahi. Both changes were made to make the name of the item more palatable. I think it's time for the lime to get a new name. If the Food Network started calling the lime by its less offensive name, I bet others would follow suit.

  27. Garret,
    What a wonderful post! I can only imagine how difficult this was to write trying not to offend but to educate. Incredibly well done. You have made a reader out of me. I will find you on Twitter!

  28. I actually bought my first Makrud lime last weekend at Central Market in Austin, Texas. You will be happy to know they were labeled as such. As I was checking out, the cashier asked me what I was planning to do with my kaffir lime. Since I had no idea that it is essentially worthless for cooking, I said, "I'm not really sure yet." In the mean time, I will use my Makrud lime for cleaning, and I will be sure to correct the cashier next time in reference to the term. Good for you for writing this post! Way to make food fun and interesting and relevant!

  29. i couldn't do my thoughts on the issue justice here but wanted to thank you for a thoughtful entry.

  30. Wow, very thought provoking post. As a haole (or white person) who lived most of my life in Hawaii, I have a unique perspective on being a minority and the brunt of racial slurs. Because of this I'm incredibly sensitive to the issue of racism, and feel sick inside when I hear the n-word. Not because I fear it, but because I know that for some people it's a source of huge pain that I would never want anyone to feel.

    Have loved exploring your blog today and added you to my reader!

  31. To try and change the meaning of the word or words would be a lie as are so many of the things the Christian's changed - take for example the Holidays. Christ was not born in Decmeber and the rituals we cling to are for the most part pagan in origin.

    The core of the issue needs to be addressed and the thought of or attempt to change the meaning of a word so that it is no longer offensive is avoiding the issue. It is not words that need to change but people. This is the 21st century and we are supposed to be evolved with broader more open minds than our ignorant ancestors. These racist ingrates need to come to terms with how truely stupid and pig-headed their ideals are and let them go. God put us here together - all equal - hands down - I don't care how rich you are or what color you are, you are no better than the homeless person you pass on the street and anyone who thinks they are needs to re-examine their priorities!

  32. This was all very interesting to me, but I don't have any good answers. I was raised here in a Southern backwater where Brazil nuts are called offensive names, and I have never seen one of those limes. When they finally make their way here, I'll know the whole story. In fact, I got to this page by Googling for 'kaffir lime' after seeing it on a vegetarian cooking blog. For those suffering discrimination, I'm sure the world does not move fast enough, but I wonder if there has been any time before now that ideas have spread so rapidly as they do now thanks to electricity and all the inventions following behind that. When I began dating my Significant Something-or-Other, I made a light remark about fags or faggots. (Don't forget that word as meaning firewood, either.) I meant a gay guy, and my shocked eight-years-younger SO told me I couldn't say that. What? That's what my gay friends used to say and what I said back then. OK, I'm getting old. I've been rebuked and now I don't say 'fag' any more. Maybe we'll catch up with more civilized areas and I'll see some of those limes we're discussing. I really mean no harm to anyone ever, so please don't take my light tone amiss.

  33. Better late than never! I'm a gardening blogger and I've been referring to Thai makrut limes as makrut limes and Thai makrut limes for quite some time and it's having no effect at all!

    I even work in gardening and cookery magazine publishing, and trying to convince people that the term "kaffir lime" is offensive doesn't hit the spot here in Australia, as "kaffir" is just not in Aussies' vocabulary, except to describe a lime!

    The discovery of the equivalent in "nigger toes" with Brazil nuts might become my new weapon, as I find amongst the people I work with and live with a real repugnance at racist language, a sincerity about the subject in general (as Australia has a racist reputation which is well deserved). They'd never say "nigger" about Aborigines, or the old-fashioned Australian racist term for them, "boongs", in fact they'd they'd be horrified to hear such things said these days. But the word "kaffir" means nothing to the average Australian.

    Great post, still influential after all these years!

  34. Hi - I've started a Twitter campaign to get some attention on this increasingly trendy ingredient! Please join the campaign @KaffirNoMore - I've linked to your site hope its ok :-)


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