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Customer Review

369 of 409 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Source of Easy Recipes. Just misnamed as usual. Buy It., October 19, 2005
This review is from: The Best Recipes in the World (Hardcover)
`The Best Recipes in the World' by New York Times columnist and leading cookbook author, Mark Bittman promises to be a really great cookbook, and it comes very, very close to fulfilling that promise.

First, one very important thing to do is to say what this book is not, as, like many of Bittman's other books, his titles have a way of inflating one's expectations. For starters, the book is much more than those two excellent `best recipe' cookbooks, `The Greatest Dishes' by Anya von Bremzen and `The Cook's Canon' by New York Times alum, Raymond Sokolov. The former gives us only eighty recipes and the latter stops at 101. Both numbers are well within their ambitions of giving us recipes `every good cook should know'. Bittman's objective is to give us a much bigger book with over 1,000 recipes from around the world.

Second, this is not a scholarly book in the vein of Paula Wolfert's magnificent studies of various Mediterranean cuisines or even Clifford Wright's study of the whole Mediterranean. And, Bittman makes no pretensions to being scholarly. One drawback of this somewhat personal view of world cuisines is that Bittman does a lot of blurring culinary boundaries which specialists in various regions would prefer to make clear. For example, he highlights only nine (9) culinary regions of Japan and Korea; China; Southeast Asia; India; Greece, The Middle East, and North Africa; France (and Europe in General); Italy; Spain; Mexico and Latin America. I implore you to not take this as any kind of gospel on world culinary regions. I just finished reading Clifford Wright's new book on spicy foods (`Some Like It Hot') and he identifies eleven (11) spicy cuisines which don't even cover half the world. In his divisions, for example, Sichuan and Hunan cooking is different from all other cooking in China and Korean cooking is much different from either nearby Japan and Manchuria. Writers about the Iberian peninsula all say the cooking of Spain and Portugal is really a lot different, based a lot on differences in colonies. Even France and Italy are commonly divided into three and two different culinary regions respectively. This should give you the idea that Bittman's take on culinary geography is very personal. He even violates his own regions by constantly identifying sources of recipes outside his nine regions. He also does not serve some of his regions as well as he might, as, for example, he leaves cocoa out of the list of essential ingredients for Mexican cuisine.

Third, Bittman's recipes are not `classic' presentations of various dishes. Bittman is following his `minimalist' muse and using the principle that less is better. He flatly states that he is lazy and will use one ingredient in place of two whenever he can. On the good side, this is not exactly the same as the `Cooks Illustrated' premise that easier is better. Bittman says that there are complicated ways of doing many of these recipes, but I like the simpler way and that is what I give you. This lumping rather than sorting out leads to a few questionable simplifications, as when he says the common ginger can be substituted for the rare galangal. Asian ingredient expert Bruce Cost would argue that one really cannot adequately stand in for the other. On the other hand, Bittman is correct when he instructs us to use Mediterranean bay and eschew California bay.

One example of Bittman's minimalism at work in this book is his recipe for Bouillabaisse, the classic Provencal fish stew. While he recognizes the opinion that this dish simply cannot be made without some fish species which can only be found near Marseilles, he presses ahead with a relatively simple recipe calling for but 13 ingredients and but three longish steps. This is categorically NOT what most people would recognize as true bouillabaisse! That doesn't mean it is not an excellent fish stew. In comparison, Von Bremzen's recipe for bouillabaisse marseillaise involves three sub-recipes, one for the fish bouillon, one for the rouille (garnish) and croutons, and one for the fish and vegetables. And, this recipe can be made as easily in the Lehigh Valley as it can in Marseilles, since it does not call for racasse or any other fish found only on France's Mediterranean shores. If I were Bittman, I would follow the course of some Mediterranean specialists and simply call his recipe a `Mediterranean fish stew'. Another example of how Bittman simplifies recipes comes from his own `How to Cook Everything'. I love Bittman's Caesar salad recipe in the older book so I looked it up in this new volume and Bittman LEAVES OUT a step from his own recipe! He does not have us coddle (boil for a minute or two) before mixing the egg in with the dressing. This is much odder than the abbreviation of bouillabaisse, as this is not a major simplification and can be seen as being a safety concern in using totally raw eggs in a dressing.

After all this Bittman bashing, I have to say that this is a really good `big' cookbook for someone who does not want a lot of cookbooks laying around, but does want to try a wide variety of interesting recipes from around the world. I believe it is better than Ruth Reichl's `The Gourmet Cookbook' of a year ago, partially since it has a single voice rather than being a compilation from hundreds of different writers over many years. I even like the fact that it claims to be light on French and Italian recipes, since very good cookbooks on these cuisines are easy to find. I would pair this up with Bittman's `How to Cook Everything', Hazan's `Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking', and Peterson's `Glorious French Food' and be done with it. Just don't neglect Wolfert, Wright, Casas, Tropp, Jaffrey, Bayless and others for the straight scoop on world cuisines.
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Showing 1-8 of 8 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Sep 7, 2007 8:15:15 PM PDT
Wow...

Posted on Feb 21, 2008 8:08:55 AM PST
Great review- better and more informative that any of the "professional" reviews.

Posted on Jan 8, 2009 3:34:50 PM PST
What a thorough review. . . I can't help but feel that I would have gotten more out of it had it been a third of the length it is. Your attention to detail is somewhat excessive; your lengthy discussion of bouillabaisse seems needlessly picky to a casual cook or reader, and makes the rest of your review less interesting, as your reader no longer feels that your opinion might be coming from the same place as their own. You obviously know a ton about cooking and books on cooking, and could obviously write a lengthy professional article on this topic. For amazon, however, it's just a little too much.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 27, 2009 4:50:58 PM PDT
j says:
I disagree and think that the distinctions the reviewer makes are necessary to explain how Bittman's "Best" may differ or be completely contrary to more complex and involved collections of "Best" recipes. If I want the best bouillabaisse recipe, I would like the recipe to actually be a bouillabaisse and would never had known if not for this reviewer. Good job!

Posted on Apr 10, 2011 9:30:06 AM PDT
Uogio says:
Thanks for such a well-written review!!

Posted on Apr 20, 2011 4:54:50 AM PDT
very helpful review.

Posted on Feb 1, 2012 10:15:12 PM PST
James Cho says:
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 2, 2012 5:28:06 AM PST
B. Marold says:
Dear Mr. Cho,
Thank you for pointing out something which is irrelevant to the discussion of this book.
Kindest regards,
Bruce
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Review Details

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Reviewer

B. Marold
(HALL OF FAME REVIEWER)    (TOP 500 REVIEWER)   

Location: Bethlehem, PA United States

Top Reviewer Ranking: 186