A Cook's Diary

Kaffir lime: racial slur and recipes

Kaffir lime: racial slur and recipes | casaveneracion.com

Not only has our kaffir lime tree grown to tremendous height and breadth, it is also generously bearing fruits. I cook with kaffir lime leaves extensively, I’ve even made simple syrup with them but I’ve always thought that kaffir lime — the fruit itself — was not edible.

What a terrible mistake on my part. I just found recipes for kaffir lime marmalade and kaffir lime curd. I also found some controversy about the name of the fruit. It appears that in some cultures, the term “kaffir” is derogatory, according to Slate.

The Arabic word kafir was originally used to refer to non-Muslims, but over the centuries it was adopted by white colonialists to describe black Africans. By the 20th century, kaffir was widely understood to be a slur, and its power to insult and offend only grew in apartheid-era South Africa, so much so that its use became legally actionable.

(What the Slate article failed to mention is that the word kafir — to plant seeds and cover them with soil — was already in use since pre-Islamic times.)

The same article, after raising hell with the racial slur angle, ironically suggests that the name of the fruit may be totally unrelated to the racial slur after all. One of the earliest mentions of the fruit is in an English book written by a Scottish botanist who lived in Sri Lanka for three decades and first encountered the fruit there. Sri Lanka is home to an ethnic group called Kaffirs who didn’t think there was anything wrong with their ethnic name.

(What the Slate article also failed to mention is that the ethnic group and kafir as the Portuguese used the term are, in fact, related. The Kaffirs are descendants of African slaves brought to Sri Lanka by Portuguese colonists to work as laborers and soldiers to fight against the Sri Lankan king. In other words, the ancestors of the Kaffirs are the very people whom the Portuguese, and eventually other European colonists who engaged in slave trade, called kafir.)

The curious thing is how, between Africa and Sri Lanka, the derogatory connotation of kafir seems to have gotten lost — not in translation but in transit.

Ah, the Europeans’ penchant for coining terms to set them apart from the population of the lands that they colonized. When the Spaniards arrived in the Philippines in the first quarter of the 16th century, they implemented a caste system and “classified” the local population into negritos (of pure Negrito ancestry), indios (legally, of pure Austronesian ancestry who were baptized as Catholics), moros (people who embraced Islam) and sangley (of pure Chinese ancestry). There were also terms for mixed-race locals. The classification determined how much tax a local paid (the whites were tax-exempt), what rights he had and, in Manila, whether he was allowed to enter the walled city of Intramuros, seat of the Spanish government in the country and the schools that the Spaniards established, and home to the white colonists.

Whether it’s the Portuguese use of kafir or the Spanish use of indio, let’s face it, colonists loved coining terms that insult the colonized population. The Filipino rice cake came to be known as “puto” after the arrival of the Spaniards and that makes one wonder what trick the colonists played on the locals by giving the local delicacy a term that means “male prostitute”.

And although today’s Kaffirs embrace their ethnicity with pride, there are suggestions that — makrut — the Thai word for kaffir lime be used instead in English dictionaries.

Perhaps, we should call puto something else.

Recipes with kaffir lime leaves:

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