The makrut lime is a beautiful fruit. Not only is it important in many Southeast Asian food cultures, it’s a great gin ingredient. There’s nothing else quite like it— herbal, but citrusy; floral, but still lemon and lime. Chefs have long suggested that the flavor is so distinctive that if a recipe calls for it, you leave it out. There is no substitution.
However, makrut lime goes by another more common problematic name: the Kaffir lime.
To my readers, a word or warning. I will be using the K-word in this article so that those who don’t know may still find this piece. I understand the term’s deeply hateful history and apologize for any offense caused. My goal is to promote education, which would be hard to do if I didn’t use the term itself.
There was a moment where an argument could be made that gin was a regional spirit. Widely drank in Europe and the Philippines; present but less popular in Australia and North America but it certainly wasn’t a feature on most people’s cocktail menus.
The 2010’s may rightfully be described as the decade of gin. Just as craft brewing had its emergence in the decade prior, the 2010’s saw a lot of countries rolling back regulations that enabled new distilleries to open and develop new products at a rate never seen before. The “Cocktail Renaissance” of the mid-2000’s and early 2010’s introduced drinkers to early 20th century cocktails which heavily relied on gin as a base.
Combined with a trend towards conscious food consumption, people found gin as a way to experience local cultures, traditions and stories in a way that no other spirit category afforded.
Gin is international now.
The consumer-driven interest has led to new distilleries the world around. Australia now hosts over 120 distilleries. Gin consumption was up 17% across the board there in 2018 [source].
Asian markets are growing as well. Gin distilleries have opened in Japan and China. Gin bars have opened in Hong Kong and Singapore.
Most pertinent for this article, South Africa is a hot market for gin right now— the count of gins distilled there may be nearing 100. In 2018, “gin consumption in South Africa grew by an astonishing 50 percent.” [source]
As the European market becomes saturated, it’s no longer a given for brands to expand there first. Likewise for a European brand looking to expand— the States have over 1,500 craft distilleries. Distillers are now looking elsewhere. Africa is part of this equation. Which is why it’s important for the gin community to acknowledge cultural differences.
Something as small as the name of a fruit does matter.
How serious is this term?
In 2018, a real estate agent was robbed in Johannesburg. Some of the officers who helped her were black. In a state of frustration she used the word as an insult, directed towards some of the officers. She was sentence to three years in prison. “Handing down her ruling, magistrate Pravina Raghoonandan said some may think the sentence was harsh but it was intended to signal that racism will not be tolerated in South Africa.” [source]
This is not an isolated incident. Someone in South Africa was overheard using the word in a conversation to another person. She was jailed and fined.
Another man was jailed for using the term in argument. The court upheld is sentence after appeal. “According to the judgment Prinsloo could not claim he did not know the use of such a word was offensive and injurious to the complainants.” [source] Even if you plead ignorance to the term’s offensive history, it should be clear— this is serious business in South Africa.
What did the term kaffir mean?
It is derived from an Arabic word for “non-believer” or non-Muslim person. Some of its initial uses in print were by Arab traders who used the term to describe black peoples of Southern Africa with whom they were trading. These people were as a matter of practice, non-Muslims.
Over time and repeated use, it began to more generally just refer to black peoples in the Southern part of the African continent. For much of its history, it was used as a catch-all general term for a diverse range of peoples. The Khoekhoe peoples, the Zulu peoples, the Basotho peoples (just to name a few) were all generally referred to by European academics and researchers using this term.
Whether or not it is fair to refer to all of these peoples by a single name, it was not used with malicious intent by writers at that time. I think an appropriate parallel might be to think about the N-word and the word colored-people. Both are considered offensive and inappropriate. But one of those words is so hurtful because of its history, that I will only refer to it by that name.
What does the term mean today?
In 1916, the Edmonton Swastikas were a hockey team— their uniforms had a Swastika placed right on the front of it. As a motif it was found in architectural detailing for centuries. Today, both of these things would be unthinkable.
The Nazis changed all of that by co-opting the swastika. You can go to jail in Germany just for posting one on social media. The K-word in South Africa is like that.
In 1948 the Reunited National Party ran for election in South Africa on a platform of white supremacy. The result of their electoral win was the implementation of Apartheid. Among their slogans was, “Die kaffer op sy plek.” In English, this could broadly be described as “Keep the N-word in his place.”
The broad use of the term throughout Apartheid, especially by a hateful and racist regime, has led to this term becoming anathema in South Africa post-Apartheid. The K-word was specifically mentioned in a 2000 law passed to prevent the use of discrimination and hate-speech.
It’s true— the fruit was not intended to be offensive
The origin of the fruit’s name is obscure and it’s not clear how it came to be known as the kaffir lime. However, there’s no evidence that the fruit was named with malicious intent.
That being said, intent or not— the reception of the term on an international gin scene is not without imbued history.
Just as you wouldn’t dream of selling a gin, especially in Germany, with a swastika on the bottle— why use such a challenging and offensive term when plenty of widely understood alternatives exist.
What do we call this fruit?
The lime and its leaves are important in a large number of Asian food cultures. None of their language’s words for it remotely relate to the term used in English.
In Malay, they call it a limau purut. In Latioan, it’s a mak khi hut. Perhaps the most widespread loan word comes from Thai, where it’s called a makrut.
If you want to be botanically precise, it’s official name is Citrus hystrix.
Or perhaps to find the simplest name, we can look back to our friends in South Africa. They just call it the Thai lime.
The name of the fruit was not intended to cause offense; but the legacy of Apartheid is one that the an international spirits industry cannot ignore in how we talk about our products.
Please, just call it a Makrut Lime.