Instead of looking for kaffir lime leaves when cooking Southeast Asian or Indian recipes, try just asking for lime leaves.
That’s how the ingredient is now classified at PCC Natural Markets, just days after staffers saw an article on racist connotations behind the original name. “The k-word is akin to the n-word in South Africa and some other African countries,” reporter Mia Stainsby wrote in The Vancouver Sun, noting a social media campaign to use the less common term “makrut lime” instead.
PCC now refers to them simply as “lime leaves,” a term approved by the Oxford Companion to Food, said PCC food writer Jill Lightner, who saw the original article and worked on the changes.
Why take such drastic steps?
“Food names can be tricky, particularly with foods from politically complicated regions or with a difficult colonial history. This issue here isn’t remotely complicated: hate speech doesn’t belong in the produce department. No one questioned the need for the change, either within the company or (thus far) at any of our suppliers we’ve gotten a response from,” Lightner said in an email.
“We’re hoping that our actions make it easier for other co-ops and markets to make the same change in their own inventories. Thus far at any rate, nobody has argued in favor of keeping the name, and with the word’s history, I would be astonished if that happened; it’s just an issue of education.”
All PCC online and deli recipes listing the leaves as an ingredient have been updated, while the chain has discontinued carrying the dried leaves from Thai Kitchen in its spice department, telling the company the reason and asking that they change the name when they print new labels. When fresh leaves are in season again, the produce department labels will list them as “lime leaves,” and the company’s suggested that name to its suppliers. “We heard back from Organically Grown Company immediately, and they have changed the name at the wholesale level; they took absolutely immediate action,” Lightner said. The only place the name might still be found is as an ingredient on Thai or Indian packaged goods, though PCC is contacting every company using the term in its goods.
The controversy behind the name has been present but low-key for years. “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?” one blogger wrote in 2009. On a 2011 Chowhound forum on moderating inappropriate language, one poster asked why the name would be problematic when used in the innocent context of food. One reply: “The planet is getting smaller in a sense… It’s rarely a bad thing to become aware of other people’s culture, even as it relates to food.”
One restaurant that’s already taken those steps is Shanik in South Lake Union. Co-owner Meeru Dhalwala, who also co-owns Vij’s in Vancouver, stopped using the term on her menus some 15 years ago when her father, who grew up in the part of India that is now Pakistan, told her it was a slur.
“In Urdu, which is the Muslim language of India/Pakistan, “Kaffir” is a derogatory word for a non-believer or someone who doesn’t accept the role of God or Allah,” she said. It’s a “major insult” also used to denote low class or darker skin color.
“When he saw the word written on my Vij’s menu (only because that’s how the produce vendor sold the leaves) he said very firmly “No, you can’t do that, no way. You look either mean or stupid.” Since then, I’ve only used the term “lime leaf” or lemon.”
It’s the flavor, after all, not the baggage, that she wants to convey.