Raisins, sultanas, currants… aaargh!

I faced a couple of interesting challenges when cooking the rice with raisins and chickpeas.

Challenge 1: I had not eaten it beforehand, so I did not quite know how it was supposed to look like.

This was an easy challenge. In addition to consulting “the Internet” I could also use my intuition (I sort of know how an oven baked rice should look like).

Challenge 2: I didn’t know which type of dried grape I should use.

The original name of the dish in Spanish is “rice with dried grapes and chickpeas”, but that doesn’t mean that you can use any dried grape. It is just a manifestation of the Spanish tendency to use “pasas” (or panses, in Valencian) in place of any type of dried grape, indistinctly, expecting the listener will know which type we mean.

In fact, “pasa” can also mean prunes if the speaker is very lax!

To make things even worse, the names for these terms in English are slightly different between UK and US English. So when trying to research how does each type look like I would end up finding different looking things.

And so even if one of the Spanish recipes I consulted advised using a specific type of grapes (currants), I wasn’t 100% sure if they were the currants some resources mentioned (Corinth raisins) or maybe they would be blackcurrants? Currants are sort of black anyway, aren’t they?

Scream after me: 😬 aaaargh! 😬‼️‼️

Me being me, I ended up making myself a table to put things side by side and understand what is what:

SpanishValencianUK EnglishUS EnglishDescription
Pasa moscatelPansa moscatellRaisinsRaisinsLarge, dark-coloured dried grape
Pasa dorada / sultaninaPansa daurada / sultaninaSultanasSultana / golden raisins / Thompson raisins / raisinsSeedless small dried grapes, typically golden in colour
Pasa de CorintoPansa de CorintCurrantsZante currants, Corinth raisinsSeedless small black dried grapes
Pasa / uva pasa: any of the above ^^^Pansa: any of the above ^^^no direct translation – or “raisins”no direct translation – or “raisins”
Ciruela pasaPruna pansaDried pruneSame as UK English?Dried tree fruit, often brown. Way juicier and plumper than dried grapes.
Pasa: any of the abovePansa: any of the above ^^^
Zarzaparrilla negra / grosella negraGrosella negra / Riber negreBlackcurrantBlackcurrants, but they’re rare in the USSmall dark berries
(not dried)
Zarzaparrilla roja / corinto / grosellaGrosella roja / RibaRedcurrantRedcurrant?Small red berries
(not dried)

Or in pictures (taken from various Wikipedia pages – credits below):

Photo credits:

Note: The original pictures are all bigger; I cropped them for the post.

If you didn’t like my explanation, I found another article explaining the difference between raisins, sultanas and currants (although I initially found it hard to follow because of the differences between American and UK English).

And now a bunch of interesting trivia that I learned along the way…

  • There are many varieties of Muscat grapes in many colours: light green, pink, yellow, dark! But it’s the dark Muscat grape that is normally used for raisins.
  • Currants are known as currants and not Corinth raisins apparently due to language corruption where Corinth ended up being transcribed as “currant” over time and the “raisin” was dropped, even if it has nothing to do with blackcurrant… and somehow it stuck. More here.
  • Most grapes are industrially dried nowadays; it’s rare to see real sun dried grapes. These industrial processes aim to dehydrate the grape as quickly as possible, as sun drying takes a long time (which is expensive), exposes the grape to spoilage (which reduces yield, thus makes things more expensive) and the colour is not so well retained (so grapes tend towards brown). Industrial dehydration allows for better control of all of this, so the output is more predictable and consistent.
  • “Old-fashioned” raisins contained seeds, and so one of the old recipes I consulted explicitly mentions removing the seeds before cooking. But seedless varieties are dominant nowadays (of course “the industry” favours it as it helps bring costs down!).
    • Side note: I see a similar phenomenon with grapes in the UK; it’s very unusual to find non-seedless grapes on sale, while it’s quite common to see those in Spain.
      • Even more of a side note: the same for watermelons—you get barely no seeds in watermelons sold in the UK, but you get BIG seeds in the watermelons sold in Spain (unless you explicitly aim to find a seedless watermelon).
  • A chemical which is frequently used to avoid spoilage is sulfur dioxide, which both prevents rotting, and contributes to the raisins keeping their original colour (rather than decaying into brown-ish). This is the same chemical that is used in wine making, where it stops the development of unwanted bacteria and oxidation (which, again, would spoil the wine). And it is where the “contains sulfites” text in wine labels comes from!
    • I’m not a chemistry expert but I wonder if all these benefits are due to the sulfur dioxide interfering with the oxygen absorption and thus avoiding oxidation and the rest of unwanted processes…
  • Raisins are frequently treated with oil (sunflower frequently) so they don’t stick together. I don’t think this impacts much the result in cooking, but it’s interesting to consider how would they look and feel like if they had not been treated like this.
  • Something that I think is fabulous is that there are specific words to describe the action of drying fruits in Catalan: pansificar (verb) / pansificació (noun). The equivalent verb / noun pair in English would be “raisinify” and “raisinification”, but sadly they do not seem to exist!
  • I had never tried or even seen blackcurrants or redcurrants before moving to the UK. I vaguely knew the names, as they would often feature in translations from Nordic/Central European tales (e.g. Swedish or German), but I didn’t know how they looked like, as Valencia is too hot to grow them. So in my brain I imagined them like raspberries or strawberries.

I hope you’re now equipped to choose the right dried grapes whenever you need them! Plus you now have a few facts ready to impress people at a social event! 😝

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