Some cookbooks are pure food porn - beautiful pictures, lush expensive ingredients, exotic settings. Mark Bittman's new book, The Best Recipes in the World, is none of these things.
This is clearly a book meant to be used in the kitchen, rather than browsed on a coffee table and it should be used frequently. Details have been minded - for example, the attached cover of the book is glossy and printed so when you inevitably spill something on the dust jacket and destroy it, you'll still have an easy time picking this book out on your shelf. But the main reason to keep this book in your kitchen is the variety and quality of the recipes.
Bittman is probably best known as the Minimalist in the New York Times. He's also a bestselling cookbook author and his book How to Cook Everything: Simple Recipes for Great Food is a fixture on many American cookbook shelves. That's why I was eagerly anticipating reading The Best Recipes in the World.
In The Best Recipes, Bittman attempts to bring together the signature recipes from many cultures. Rather than focusing solely on Euro-centric cuisine, Bittman interprets recipes from Southeast Asia, Mexico, India, and elsewhere, along with the full range of European recipes from Greek to English to Hungarian and French. I don't know of another mainstream general-purpose American cookbook that includes so much Indian food. For that alone this would be a notable volume.
Broadening the average American cook's repertoire is an ambitious project, and for the most part Bittman succeeds. He asserts that the point of the book is to allow a home chef to create a credible version of classic international dishes. To make that possible, Bittman will combine or omit non-essential ingredients, and adapt recipes to use equipment found in the average kitchen. His directions are easy to follow and the recipes should capture the broad essence of these dishes, even if some ethnic subtleties are lost.
There are a few problems with the book, but these are mostly nitpicky: I noticed that Bittman is inconsistent in naming his dishes. Some dishes are given with the local cultural name followed by a descriptive name in English. Other dishes are not given this courtesy. Ghanese groundnut stew is listed under "Nketia Fla", for instance, but nowhere in the "Rice and Lentils with Carmelized Onions" recipe do you find the word "Mujaderra". There are plenty of other examples.
Bittman and his editors have included some excellent adjunct material to the recipes. The section on how to build a pantry for various cuisines is excellent and should be required reading for any cook who aspires to cook a variety of cuisines. There's also a section on menu-building and a list of recipes with squares indicating which are "make-ahead", "serve at room temperature or cold", and "30 minutes or less".
I didn't like the coding system of red, grey, and pink squares to mark the convenience factor of the dish that is carried from the chart to the recipe listing in the book. The book has a number of essential directive illustrations, why not use a graphical icon for each of the indicators instead of the blobs? If another edition is forthcoming, I'd also like an indicator of which dishes are vegetarian.
But again, the flaws are mostly minor. I would have liked to see more Thai dishes in the book (dishes I consider gobal staples like tom kha kai and pad see euw are missing, but pad thai is represented), and the naming and iconography issues are a nuisance, but overall this is a great book to have permanently in your kitchen, and an excellent introduction to the "star" dishes of dozens of countries.