Celebrating, Yes, Celebrating Raisins

Hurrah.  Raisins and other dried fruit have found a champion in Russ Parsons of the LA Times.

Truly, dried fruit has become the ingredient that dare not speak its name. What’s weirdest about that is all the really good cooks I know love dried fruit. On Facebook recently, cookbook author Maria Speck her “Ancient Grains” is terrific polled colleagues about which dried fruits they had in their pantries. I was feeling pretty proud: dark and golden raisins, currants, apricots, cranberries, sour cherries, figs and prunes yes, I call them prunes, and proudly!.

via Russ Parsons The California Cook: Dried fruit deserves a chance. Particularly this time of year, when raisins and other dried fruits can come to the rescue in both savory dishes and desserts. – latimes.com. 01/27/2014.

I like to think my Christmas posting about raisins had something to do with this in an indirect way, as Maria Speck, whom Russ cites, wrote that she wished she could again taste the wonderful raisins of her Greek youth.

In fact, quite a few friends weighed in on raisins.

Vikram Doctor reminded me that Helen Saberi describes Afghan drying houses and offers a number of recipes with raisins in her classic Afghan Food and Cookery.

Katy Biggs came up with photographs showing the famous raisins of Turfan on the old Silk Roads being sold by Uighyars in Shanghai and Taipei.

In the center packet, jade green dried raisins from Turfan on sale in Taipei. Katy Biggs

In the center packet, jade green dried raisins from Turfan on sale in Taipei. Katy Biggs

Turkey emerged as a place where they are still honored. Here’s Robyn Eckhardt of the must-follow Eating Asia blog.

In late Sept, while driving in SE Turkey, we passed hectares of fruit laid out to dry in the sun and stopped to by raisins from a roadside stand. The grapes were dried, but not fully; they were pliable and only partly chewy and tasted so intense, like raisin jam — so far from the raisins we grew up with (Sun Maid!) that it feels wrong to call the two foods by the same name.

Iran, though, appears to be the center of raisin excellence, not surprising given the long, long history of grape cultivation there. Naomi Duguid spoke of the excellent ones she had tasted on her trip there late last year. Faye Levy recommended buying them from Persian stores (and also polled her FB readers about dried fruit in their pantries). And so I’ll give the word to Sally Butcher who runs a Persian store, Persepolis, in London.

Persepolis Grocery Store

Interior of Persepolis, Peckham, London. Sally Butcher.

We import and sell vast quantities of dried fruit, and sales are on the increase.

I suspect that the US and UK eating public differ on this. I think more of my shop customers than ever before actually made their own mincemeat and puds this Christmas.

Dried fruit is a popular snack for kids, gets used in muesli, and with the increasing interest in Middle Eastern cuisine it is being used in savoury food more and more.

The Middle Eastern sultanas and raisins we import are definitely superior in flavour. In addition, the US stuff that reaches these shores is usually sold through supermarkets, and is thus in the food chain for a worryingly long period of time. The stuff that is in ethnic shops usually comes through smaller suppliers (such as us) and is invariably fresher.

The importance of dried fruit in Central Asia cannot be understated: my favourite usage therein is in the preparation of ‘haft miweh’L: 7 fruits (or nuts) which are prepared and consumed symbolically at the time of Nowrooz.

So two things to consider.

First, like all preserved foods raisins have a character all their own, quite distinct from the grapes from which they are made. As Adam Balic pointed out since raisins are now used so infrequently, cooks have lost the ability to discriminate between good and bad ones. Time to resuscitate that discriminating judgment.

Second, in doing so, it’s worth searching out raisins from the raisin heartland that stretches from Spain (and its old colony Argentina) through Greece, Turkey, Persia, the core of the core of grape growing, and out to Afghanistan and Central Asia.

And now I’m collecting dishes in which raisins really shine.

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6 thoughts on “Celebrating, Yes, Celebrating Raisins

  1. Mae

    I hope you plan to share your shining examples of raisin recipes. You must have some good recipes for Mexican and South American meat-raisin picadillo fillings for turnovers or Keshi Yena from Curacao and its relatives in other countries. I’m sure my recipes for these dishes aren’t as authentic as yours but they are among my favorite raisin combinations.

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Hi Mae, I don’t really believe in authentic recipes so I’m sure yours are just as good as mine. And I don’t know Keshi Yena from Curacao so I’m hopping on the web right now to track it down.

      Reply
  2. mae

    Keshi Yena uses a hollowed-out gouda cheese, reflecting the link between Curacao and the Netherlands. The filling is similar to Mexican picadillo, though. The long-established Jewish community of Curacao had its own version with a fish and raisin filling to comply with kosher requirements. All kind of like the local language, Papiamento, which contains vocabulary from a vast number of languages.

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Ah yes, Mae. They have that dish in Yucatan, Mexico too. Interesting to hear how widespread it was.

      Reply
  3. Rochelle Cashdan

    Just ate a raisin panque from Gto’s San Sebastian bakery. Yum. And I munch a dried apricot even more often, besides eating moist prunes. Learned to love the latter when I first tasted prune whip as a child.

    Reply
  4. Taiwanxifu

    Last year I did a Mindful Based Stress Reduction MBSR course. One of the activities was to observe,and eventually slowly eat, a few raisins, one at a time. Pausing to notice the smell, sound, and individual folds of each raisin gave me a new appreciation for the dried fruit. And the final swallow was a taste sensation I will never forget.

    Reply

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