Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Possible Racial Slurs in the Culinary Lexicon?

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

On the one hand, I just want to focus on the food. On the other hand, as someone deeply interested in linguistics, I can't just turn a blind eye to issues that have cropped up from time to time in the course of writing about food.

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

I recalled fruitlessly 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, which goes by the name "kaffir lime," 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. Do I always include a footnote? Do I, as has been suggested, refer to the fruit with its Thai name, "makrut" (มะกรูด), and let folks figure out on their own what the heck I am talking about?

Or do I go on calling the fruit, kaffir lime, as if its racially-derogatory etymology is irrelevant as long as I use the term with no hostile intention?

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.

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 term 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 it's not derogatory or offensive.

So I am in a dilemma. Should I bring up the Thai name at all? Or do I pretend it doesn't exist? Should I bring it up with a hey-I'm-just-reporting-a-fact disclaimer?

The answer to my dilemma could be the use of the alternate term for these banana fritters, "kluai tod" (กล้วยทอด), which is more generic and politically-correct. But it's less commonly used and quite inadequate in specifying 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, "Salad Khaek" (สลัดแขก) or a dish that has the Thai word for green bean, "thua khaek" (ถั่วแขก), to cite just a few examples.

And don't get me started on the term "farang" (ฝรั่ง), used to refer to Caucasian foreigners, (which could be derogatory or neutral, depending on whom you ask) and how often it is used in the culinary context.
  • Chewing gum = farang betel
  • Dill = farang coriander
  • Potato = farang yam
  • Guava = farang. Just farang.
  • Etc.