As a graduate student, I am poor. Not poor enough, however, to take advantage of a tremendous opportunity to buy some of the Culinaria series of world cuisine cookbooks, which are now on clearance at Borders for $9.99. These particular editions are paperback, and they’re large and hefty, so I’ll only recommend the paperbacks if you are impoverished like me. Otherwise, go for the hardback. The Borders in Eugene has several copies of the France, Russia, Italy, Southeast Asian Specialties and Germany cookbooks. These cookbooks are very difficult to find, and the prices wildly fluctuate as they go in and out of print. I’ve never seen them priced this low, and I’ve been monitoring them for a couple of years.
I like these cookbooks so much that I even named my blog after them.
The Culinaria series, which consists of the Caribbean, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Russia, and the United States, specializes in cultural and regional specialties in each of the countries featured in the books. France, for example, has chapters for twelve gastronomical regions, all with glorious photographs and insets of particular regional dishes and products, such as specialty preserves, mustards, mineral water, cheeses, pastries and even offal. There are many recipes for classic dishes and the recipes seem to be uniformly excellent, from what I can tell from the few reviews online and my own experience. The real strength of these books, however, is not the recipes but the cultural background and culinary specialties described in exhaustive detail. You will find stuff in these books that is nowhere else in English, including the internet. Two major weaknesses relate to the scope and heft of these 500-page books: the print is quite small to make room for the thousands of photographs, and they are very large and heavy, looking more like coffee table books than cookbooks. I use them mainly as references to support my other ethnic cookbooks, so I am not too worried about the wear and tear they’d get if they were battered about on the counter.
The two-volume European Specialties and slim Southeast Asian Specialties volume both feature several unlike countries glommed together; quite frankly, I don’t think they are worth the price, but these books still feature gorgeous photography, cultural insights, and lengthy discussions of products and dishes. The massive Culina Mundi, a world gastronomic tour, is rather ridiculous at about double the size of the other cookbooks. I suppose if you only wanted one cookbook, that would work for you, but please.
The German publisher Konemann started putting out the Culinaria series out about ten years ago, and most of the Culinaria cookbooks have gone through two editions. I believe that the cookbooks are translated into their native country of origin’s languages (I’ve seen the Hungarian Hungary, the German Germany, and the French France), and I’d imagine that since the publisher is German, they are available in German as well as English, but I don’t have evidence for that. H. F. Ullmann and/or the Langenscheidt Group now puts them out, with new editions in the past couple of years and upcoming in 2008. (I think Konemann went out of business, but you’ll still see the publisher listed as Konemann on several online cookbook sites for these cookbooks.)
The Mediterranean Cuisine series, which you can also see in the photo above, is a set of smaller, much more idiosyncratic cookbooks of the cuisines of the Mediterranean: Greece, the Islands of the Mediteranean, Italy, France, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey and Spain. This series is comprised of recipes and techniques for major dishes in these countries. Instead of focusing on particular regions, however, this series features a team of chefs from the particular country who make the recipes. I’m not sure I’d recommend them to the beginning cook, but they feature interesting recipes in underrepresented cuisines and show step-by-step instructions (of varying quality) for each recipe. The biggest problem I have with these cookbooks is a lack of an index and glossary, a necessity for unusual cuisines. The writing is also not nearly as good as the Culinaria series, and there are some awkward syntax problems that may be a function of a non-native translator. The recipes are inflected by each particular chef’s style and vernacular, which could either be good or not, depending on the chef, and since the books have smaller production values and size than the Culinaria series, they don’t have the comprehensive scope.