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Most Christmas pudding recipes call for both sultanas and raisins.

It is my understanding that a raisin refers to any dried grape.

A sultana is both the name of a seedless grape, originating from Smyrna in eastern Turkey, and the name of the raisin deriving from that grape.

I think Americans call them all raisins anyway, so that the Australian breakfast cereal Sultana Bran is known as Raisin Bran in the USA.

But I am still puzzled as to why recipes specify both sultanas and raisins. The sultanas are much nicer than the seeded raisins, and I can't think it would be to the detriment of the Christmas pudding if you included all sultanas.

And before some boring individual observes that 'this is off-topic because it is about cookery, not the English language', I would also be interested to know if the origin of sultana has anything to do with the wife or concubine of a sultan. The OED supplies nothing on etymology.

  • 2
    This Britishfood site spells it out. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 22 '14 at 19:00
  • @Edwin Some interesting stuff there. – WS2 Dec 22 '14 at 21:11
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    There's a rather large list of differences in food & cooking terms between various English dialects at cooking.stackexchange.com/q/784/67 – Joe Dec 23 '14 at 3:04
  • even more confusing for non-brits, I would imagine... – user3306356 Dec 23 '14 at 4:10
  • @Joe That is quite a work. – WS2 Dec 23 '14 at 9:09
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From an American culinary perspective, while generally "sultana" and "raisin" are interchangeable, the unqualified sultana is a light-colored fruit and the unqualified raisin is a dark-colored fruit.

To rewrite this recipe using typical American English, replace "sultanas" with "golden raisins."

I would expect the recipe would be as easily understood in the UK if "raisins" were replaced by "dark sultanas;" however, this is contested in the comments below.

The issue of seeds is not relevant, as the vast majority of raisins are produced from the Thompson Seedless grape, including those known as sultanas. From Raisin Grape Varieties:

‘Thompson Seedless’ [grapes are] dominant in most commercial raisin-producing countries worldwide.

However, the nomenclature issue is less clear-cut than I originally thought; the same book has this to say about the Thompson Seedless grape (emphasis mine):

The variety’s most widely accepted name in the literature is ‘Sultanina,’ a derivation of ‘Sultanieh,’ believed by some to be a recognition of a sultan’s appreciation for or ownership of the grape, or of its possible origination in or near the town Soultanieh, which is situated in Persia not far from the Caspian Sea. Other synonyms are ‘Oval Kechmish’ (Iran, Persia), ‘Kouforrogo’ (Greece), ‘Tchekirdeksiz’ (Turkey), and “Sultana” (Australia and South Africa).

There is another grape described near the end of the chapter as a "misnamed variety:"

"SULTANA"

The earliest introduction (mid-1800s) of this misnamed variety was by a Mr. West, a Stockton nurseryman. It was distributed as “Sultana” under the mistaken impression that it was the variety from which the ‘Sultana’ raisins of commerce were produced. Colonel Agoston Haraszthy also imported the same variety from Spain in 1861. It probably was introduced into Europe from Asia Minor. It is described under the name ‘Round Kishmish’ in French ampelographies, and should not be confused with the true ‘Sultanina’ (Sultana) that we know as ‘Thompson Seedless.’

Note that while this text addresses the origin of the name Sultanina, given to the grape variety I've been calling Thompson Seedless, it doesn't directly address the origin of the name Sultana, given to the dried fruit produced from that grape (and to an ostensibly unrelated grape variety).

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    Note that both dark and golden raisins are made from green (i.e. light-colored) grapes. The difference is that one is treated (usually with sulfur dioxide) to retain its light color, while the other is allowed to darken naturally. – Marthaª Dec 22 '14 at 19:27
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    "I expect the recipe would be as easily understood [in the UK] if you replaced 'raisins' with 'dark sultanas.'" Nope. In British usage, although it's true that a sultana is essentially a light raisin, you'd never use the phrase "light raisin" to mean a sultana, or "dark sultana" to mean a raisin. – David Richerby Dec 22 '14 at 22:31
  • @DavidRicherby But would you understand what ingredients were called for in the recipe? – Air Dec 22 '14 at 22:33
  • @AirThomas Probably not, no. I'd think you were talking about some special kind of sultana that I couldn't find in any of the shops. It wouldn't occur to me that you were using a convoluted phrase for a simple thing, unless I had my lateral thinking hat on. I'd probably substitute regular sultanas. – David Richerby Dec 22 '14 at 22:37
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    @DavidRicherby Fair enough; I've noted your perspective in the answer. As far as the recipe goes, the reason to use both is probably just aesthetic (but I'm trying to stay away from giving a cooking.SE answer here). :) – Air Dec 22 '14 at 22:42
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AmE usage seems a bit "variable", but I think everyone in the UK recognizes the same distinction...

Raisins are dried white grapes (pictured #3 below).
They are dried to produce a dark, sweet fruit. The grapes used are usually Moscatel.

Sultanas are also dried white grapes but from seedless varieties.
They are golden in color and tend to be plumper, sweeter and juicier than other raisins.
Also referred to as Golden Raisins in the US.

Currants (#1 below) are dried, black, seedless grapes.

enter image description here

Sources: Text, Picture

That may not be the clearest possible picture (currants are usually much smaller than raisins). OED doesn't explicitly say why the usage arose, but the relevant definition (in full sultana raisin) is in the entry with the primary definition wife (or concubine) of a sultan. So the etymology is undisputed, even if it's not clear exactly how the culinary sense came about.

  • This Wikipedia photo shows the difference more clearly. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 22 '14 at 20:51
  • @Janus: Good find! That's exactly the difference I'd expect in the UK, but I'll stick with mine in the answer because it has all three side-by-side (and, usefully, numbered). I've only recently become aware that sultanas (which are imho the best) are significantly more expensive than the others. I guess I should have expected that. – FumbleFingers Dec 22 '14 at 20:58
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    Regarding the etymology bit (which has piqued my interest now), Weekley’s etymological dictionary has: “Sultana raisin is a 19 cent. trade-name, but the word was also used of 18 cent. confections”, which sounds like sultan was used a bit like Turkish nowadays (as in Turkish delights), as just some more or less vague indicator of Middle Easternness. Possibly (?) sweets and confections were considered more of a women’s thing (men preferring a pipe and a brandy?), so the female sultana was used? It’s a theory, anyway … – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 22 '14 at 21:06
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    In US English, (1) are currants, (2) are golden raisins, and (3) are raisins. (3) are by far the most common type found in stores and cooking; (1) and (2) are a bit harder to find. The most common variety of grapes used for raisins sold in the US are Thompson seedless. The term sultana isn't used and would be likely to confuse US speakers. – Nate Eldredge Dec 23 '14 at 1:21
  • What @Nate said. Also, around these parts, seeded raisins went out of fashion many generations ago. A "raisin" is emphatically NOT expected to contain any seeds. (Also, I thought the EU was against food additives and preservatives. Golden raisins, no matter what you call them, don't stay all plump and golden without some chemical help, you know.) – Marthaª Dec 23 '14 at 3:37

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