It’s been a couple of years, but I clearly remember the shock.
I had just moved to Minneapolis, and I was living on the edge of Nordeast, a once-working class neighborhood of warehouses and breweries, now being colonized with indie shops and small restaurants. The gentrification was patchy, and between the rough-buffed newness, glints showed of the area’s gritty history: the polka bar, the bowling alley-steakhouse, the Ukrainian Event Center.
I took a wrong turn one day, looking for the new Nordeast—a tiki-pizza restaurant, I think—and braked in disbelief at evidence of the old one: A giant lit-up sign advertising “Dagos and Liquor.” I blinked, sure I was seeing this wrong, and drove around the other side. The sign there was even bigger: “Homemade Dagos,” it emphasized cheerfully. “Burgers. Soups. Cocktails.”
It’s likely you didn’t grow up with Italians, so let me explain: To East Coast Italian-Americans at least, “Dago” is grossly offensive. I know this because the street in Brooklyn where I was born was Irish on one side, Italian on the other. Saying the word out loud, even on the Irish side, would have brought fists flying across the block.
Minneapolis isn’t very diverse; maybe, I thought, my new neighbors didn’t know the word was problematic. Back in my building that evening, I told my tall blonde friends about the sign. Yah sure, they said: A “dago” was a local treat, a hamburger-like patty piled with grilled onions and peppers, tomato sauce, and melted cheese. I asked if it had anything to do with Italians. You bet, they said: The patty was made out of Italian sausage. Did anyone consider it a slur, I asked? They looked nonplussed. Someone recalled that the city of St. Paul had tried to ban the name and been mocked for it. Someone else said that an Italian restaurant in St. Paul had been serving dagos since 1939—so surely it was no big deal.
For a reality check, I sent a picture of the sign to an Italian-American friend. He flinched. It was a big deal.
I remembered these conversations recently when I ran across a campaign, launched initially on Twitter, to rename the Kaffir lime, a bumpy-skinned fruit from Southeast Asia with deeply perfumed leaves. “Kaffir” is a slur: In apartheid South Africa, whites hurled it against blacks. Writer Mark Mathabane, who was born in a Johannesburg shantytown during apartheid, used it to title his memoir, Kaffir Boy. In modern South Africa, uttering the word is scandalous hate speech, and defamation suits have been brought and won over it. Just this week, South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeal upheld a man’s sentence (of a fine and a year in jail) for using it, saying in a unanimous opinion: “The word is racially abusive and offensive… its use is not only prohibited but is actionable as well.”
Yet Kaffir lime is an exotic and delicious ingredient, increasingly prominent in spirits and on menus. Veronica Vinje, a Canadian who started the campaign after learning of the word’s hurtfulness from a graduate-school classmate, used the Twitter account @KaffirNoMore to document the lime’s presence in the work of brewers, chefs and bartenders and to ask them to change.
So is the “Kaffir” in Kaffir lime intended to be offensive? And does intent matter?
Some writers claim the name is meant to be insulting. Reflecting on the history, food writer Garrett McCord wrote five years ago: “Kaffirs… were considered dirty, uneducated, and ugly; people to be considered less than human compared to other classes and races… 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.”
It’s a compelling etymology, but it may be a false one. Twice over, actually: First, because the lime possesses other names; and second, because “Kaffir” may have become attached to it somewhere other than Africa.
Botanically, the Kaffir lime is Citrus hystrix; in Thailand, where it gives tom yum soup its floral pungency, it’s bai makrut. Julia McHugh Morton, who co-founded the University of Miami’s fruit-research center and wrote the masterful Fruits of Warm Climates, encountered it in her fieldwork in Asia and called it “porcupine orange.” “Kaffir” became attached to the fruit at some point, but how?
Researcher David Karp (better known as the “fruit detective”) thinks he knows the answer. In 1998, he and writer Cara De Silva proposed in the journal Petits Propos Culinaires that the lime gained its name from Indian Muslims, who borrowed the Arabic word kafara (“infidel” or “disbeliever”) to describe products coming from Buddhist Southeast Asia. In 2004, they wrote an update, reporting that they had found the name (in a Portuguese spelling, caffre-) in a reference published in England in 1888, describing a fruit that a botanist had found in Sri Lanka. In their thinking, the fruit—with name already attached—came with those traders to Africa, where “Kaffir” had separately been introduced as a term of abuse by Arab slavers. To finesse potential offense, Karp and De Silva described the fruit in their articles as “infidel lime.”
(In an email, Karp wrote that distress over the name shouldn’t distract from Kaffir lime’s modern importance. The leaves are so hard to get in the United States, and so essential to the flavor of Southeast Asian dishes, that they are frequently smuggled into this country—a huge danger, because they are also a prime host for an insect that transmits citrus greening, a disease now devastating US orange production. To undercut the incentives for smuggling, Karp has been part of a California Citrus Research Board project seeking to grow the lime trees in the US, but it has been slow going.)
So the “Kaffir” in Kaffir lime may not be meant to be offensive—yet there’s no question the word, in the African context, illuminates a history that deserves to die. Vinje told me she prefers calling the fruit by its Thai name, and her campaign has gained traction with culinary and produce professionals who think the change is appropriate, as well as with North American media (Jezebel, Slate, Take Part, CBC, New York magazine).
Myself, I love the taste of the aromatic leaves, and also of this vodka (whose distillers didn’t respond when I asked about the name by email). But the next time I seek them out, I’ll think of the history, and of my friend’s flinch over an innocently named sandwich, and I’ll look for a place that calls it makrut.
This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.