Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Racial Slurs in the Culinary Lexicon?

In writing about food, I sometimes find myself in a quandary.

On the one hand, I want to focus on just the food. On the other hand, I can't just turn a blind eye to linguistic (political, environmental, etc.) issues that have cropped up from time to time in the course of writing about food.

Case in point, Mr. @GarySoup recently tweeted: "Amazed that foodies still don't know (or don't want to know) that "kaffir" is a racial slur."

I recalled mulling over that issue a few years back.

It has been suggested that the kaffir in kaffir lime comes from the term كافر (kāfir), along with its plural form كفّار (kuffār) which features the reduplication of the second radical of the tri-literal root (hence the doubling of the f in kaffir, perhaps). Wiki has some information on this word.

Looking at a close relative of Arabic, while the cognate tri-literal root in Hebrew, כפר, primarily points to the idea of "to cover (one's sin)" or the propitiation of sin, it's been suggested that, at some point, the related form כופר has also come to be used to refer to those who have left the religion (source).

More lexical investigation is needed to establish firmly that the bumpy citrus fruit, heavily used in Thai cuisine, indeed comes from the derogatory kāfir. For now, let's assume that this is the case.

What am I supposed to do every time I write about dishes that contain that fruit? I certainly can't avoid it, especially when I write about Thai food. Do I always include a footnote? An apology? Do I, as has been suggested, refer to the fruit with its Thai name, makrut, and let folks figure out on their own what the heck I am talking about?

Do we go on calling the fruit "kaffir lime" as long as we use the term innocently?

Kaffir is far from being the only potentially racial slur in the culinary lexicon, though. Dig deeply enough and I'm sure you'll find a few -- if not a lot -- more. If we collectively change the way we refer to kaffir lime -- and I'm not saying we shouldn't -- we perhaps should also consider changing the names of many other things. Those who are offended by and campaigning against the use of the word "kaffir" in the context of "kaffir lime," -- and there's nothing wrong with that -- could be surprised that they, too, have been innocently using racial slurs to refer to other things.

As I'm composing this post, I have in the draft folder of my other blog a post on Thai fried bananas. This much-loved street food is commonly called in Thai, "kluai khaek" (กล้วยแขก). "Khaek"(แขก) is an old-fashioned catch-all Thai word for South Asian or Middle Eastern people. Sometimes, it even applies to fellow Southeast Asians of the Islamic faith. The term, "khaek dam" (แขกดำ), literally "black khaek," makes it more specific that the speaker is referring to certain sub-groups with darker skin color. Similarly, "khaek khao" (แขกขาว), literally "white khaek," refers to some sub-groups with fairer skin color. However you slice and dice it, we're tiptoeing in a very sensitive territory.

Personally, I have never sensed that it's being used by anyone I know as a racial slur, though. But that doesn't necessarily mean there will be people who find it derogatory or offensive.

Also, as any linguist/semanticist will tell you, meanings of words change over time. What wasn't derogatory (or used in an intentionally derogatory way) decades ago can become so in the current usage (based on this, it's not unfathomable that some words that are used derogatorily in the present were once completely benign (or even had positive meanings!).

So I am in a dilemma. Should I bring up the Thai name at all? Or do I pretend it doesn't exist?

The answer to my dilemma could be the use of the alternate term for these banana fritters, kluai tod (literally: fried bananas) which is more generic and politically correct. But it's not a common way to refer to this particular dish in Thailand and is quite inadequate as it fails to specify which of the various types of fried bananas is being referred to. Yet, even though I could manage to dodge the banana issue, more similar issues will soon crop up. For example, one of these days, I'm going to have to mention the Thai version of the Indonesian salad, gado-gado, salat khaek (literally: salad khaek-style) or a dish that has the Thai word for green beans, thua khaek (khaek's beans), to cite just a few examples.

And don't get me started on the term farang, used by the Thai to refer to Caucasian foreigners, (which could be derogatory or neutral, depending on whom you ask -- and, oh, this debate could go forever) and how often it is used in the culinary context.

Chewing gum (mak farang) = farang betel
Dill (phak chi farang) = farang coriander
Potato (man farang) = farang yam
Guava (farang) = just ... farang.

Back to the "kaffir" issue: if we stop using "kaffir lime," must we also stop using other derogatory (or potentially derogatory) words currently in use? Maybe we should. Maybe we must. This, however, will involve analyzing a lot of things, linguistically, religiously, ethnically, historically, socially, politically, etc. It's no small task.