Elizabeth David's France, Yan-Kit So's China, Alice Waters's America - the best cook books give an insight into a country's culture as well as its kitchen cupboards. By Sybil Kapoor
The British love foreign recipes, they always have. As soon as cookery books became popular in the 17th century, their authors began to make a point of including recipes from Turkey, Portugal, France, Italy and Spain. The more exotic the better, for it implied a sophistication that could not be obtained with roast mutton. Gradually, our horizons grew wider through the 18th and 19th centuries, until Indian and Chinese recipes appeared alongside the usual selection of pies, puddings and pickles. But somewhere along the way we lost our culinary confidence. Perhaps it was increasing industrialisation, the world wars and the years of monotonous rationing. Whatever the reason, British food became dull. Dull that is until Elizabeth David published her Mediterranean Food in 1950 and revived our hunger for foreign dishes. From then on, we have thrived on recipe books from around the world, experimenting on friends and families alike. Among the hundreds of cookery books that have been published in the past 40 years, some have so shaped our perception of their country's food as to become classics. Here are a few of the best.

French Provincial Cooking

by Elizabeth David

Penguin, pounds 6.99

More than any other British author, Elizabeth David reawakened the British appetite for foreign food. In an austere world where fresh herbs were still hard to find, she wrote French Provincial Cooking. It may have been published in 1960 but it still inspires the cook with its evocative writing and unpretentious recipes. It is one of the few cookery books that can be read cover to cover with intense pleasure. It is so full of fascinating information, you feel as though you are travelling across France before you have even reached the recipes. These, in true David style, always make you want to cook to the best of your ability. It doesn't matter whether the recipe is for aubergines with parsley and garlic or beef and wine stew with black olives, you cannot resist the urge to get out your Le Creuset and cook.

The Classic Italian Cookbook

by Marcella Hazan

Macmillan, pounds 12.99

Among the many volumes dedicated to Italian cooking, one stands out, Marcella Hazan's Classic Italian Cookbook, first published in 1973. It starts from the premise that there is no such thing as Italian cooking, rather there is only regional Italian food. From that point on, everything is explained, so you do not feel an idiot if you do not know how to make polenta - a cardinal sin for cookery enthusiasts a few years ago. Chapters are divided into the components of a meal: antipasta or salads, for example. Many of her recipes may be familiar, such as vitello tonnato, or il grande fritto misto. All are good. Hazan wrote a second volume, which is currently out of print, but is worth buying if you stumble upon it. All the extras, like recipes for bread and less widely known dishes are piled into it. Once you have studied Hazan, you will be able to cope with anything the more chi chi Italian cookery books throw at you.

A Taste of India

by Madhur Jaffrey

Pavilion Books, pounds 9.99

Finding one book that covers Indian cooking is not easy, given that India contains as many different cuisines as all of Europe. Madhur Jaffrey's A Taste of India, published in 1985, stands alone in successfully presenting the reader with a comprehensive and tempting view of the subject. She divides the book into the different gastronomic regions, each chapter begins with an evocative introduction and follows with typical indigenous recipes, such as chickpea flour stew with dumplings from Delhi or Kashmiri spinach. There are lots of photographs of India, Indian art and food, just in case your enthusiasm wavers. In true Jaffrey style, the text is coloured by her warm, romantic love of the country, but that does not stop her from being suitably practical. As always, she includes notes on ingredients at the end of the book.

Japanese Cooking: a Simple Art

by Shizuo Tsuji

Kodansha, pounds 29.99

First published in 1980, this is the bible of Japanese cooking for western chefs. As soon as you start to read the first chapter explaining The Japanese Meal, you know that you are in the hands of a writer who makes everything sound simple, attainable and delicious. Every aspect of Japanese cooking is explained and where you might be in any doubt, line drawings are added for further clarity. The book is divided into two; the first part begins with Japanese ingredients, utensils, knives and basic cutting methods, before going on to each Japanese technique such as simmering, deep-frying or making sushi. Each is accompanied by dozens of recipes. In the second part, the recipes are more advanced. You know your tempura is going to taste superb and success brings confidence to experiment further. Many of the recipes, such as sake-simmered mackerel or foil-cooked enokitake mushrooms, can be easily integrated into a western diet.

Thai Cooking

by Jennifer Brennan

Warner, pounds 4.99

At first glance, Thai Cooking, first published in 1981, does not fill one with confidence. Small and densely written, there is not a glossy photograph in sight and worse still, its author is American not Thai. Nevertheless, Jennifer Brennan's evocative writing allows the reader to smell, hear and see Thailand. You cannot help but trust her as she describes her experience of living there and her efforts to recreate Thai food in California. Nor would your trust be misplaced, for her recipes taste superb. Intense lime- and chilli-flavoured prawn salad, aromatic red beef curry or baked custard squares made with coconut milk, are all equally delicious. Having dealt with the "fundamentals", she gives a selection of Thai menus before launching into the recipe chapters which begin with starters, and snacks, and end with drinks. All the recipes are clear and easy to follow. A book to return to again and again.

Chez Panisse Vegetables

by Alice Waters

HarperCollins, pounds 30 (US import)

Alice Waters is the Elizabeth David of America. In 1971, inspired by her travels to the South of France and David's writing, she opened her restaurant, Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. It was an immediate success and books followed, the most famous being The Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook (HarperCollins), currently out of print. This captures the essence of Californian cooking through a succession of inspirational seasonal menus. Waters's books have led chefs from all over the States to source their own ingredients and challenge the preconceptions as to what constituted modern American food. Her latest offering, Chez Panisse Vegetables, is also excellent. Beautifully presented, Waters has divided the book alphabetically into home-grown vegetables. Each chapter begins with practical information and follows with typical Californian-style recipes, stir-fried pea-vine shoots, for example, or pasta with potatoes, rocket and rosemary, and green garlic soup. If you are after an instant impression of American food as a whole, you should also consider The Dean & Deluca Cookbook by David Rosengarten with Joel Dean and Giorgio Deluca, Ebury Press, pounds 25. Dean & Deluca opened their SoHo food emporium in New York in the late Seventies and this book includes many of their dishes and ingredients. It gives you three different variations of clam chowder, for example, as well as recipes for roasted catfish sandwich with smoked salmon and rocket, and meat loaf. In other words, it methodically covers the gamut of American cooking. It is almost the Manhattan version of Constance Spry.

Traditional Spanish Cooking

by Janet Mendel

Garnet Publishing, pounds 14.95

Anyone familiar with Spain will immediately recognise many of the recipes in Janet Mendel's book, published in 1996. The snails cooked with tomato and paprika that you get as tapas, for example, or the lunch-time first course of roasted pepper salad or spring-time vegetable stew. Mendel has cleverly divided her book into meals, beginning with breakfast, so that she is able to recreate the uniquely Spanish feeling that comes from the way they pace their day around food. The recipes are simple and straightforward - you get what you see, which in itself is very Spanish.

The Cook's Companion

by Stephanie Alexander

Viking, pounds 35

Over the past 10 years, the Australians have managed to shake off their image of only cooking prawns on the barbie in favour of a sophisticated new Pan Pacific cuisine. Although an increasing number of chef's books are appearing here with just such food, it seems more appropriate to choose Stephanie Alexander's The Cook's Companion, published in 1996, which gives a greater emphasis to Australian home cooking. It is an endearingly big, fat book, well laid out with silky white pages and an orange ribbon bookmark. Alexander has alphabetically listed what she considers to be typical household ingredients, such as fennel, figs and fish, or yabbies (see page 40) and yoghurt. Each ingredient is placed in its Australian context before advice is given on varieties, season, selection, storage, preparation and cooking. Many of the recipes are familiar, but there are some that have an Australian slant, thus you could make a warm salad of roasted or grilled kangaroo or a golden pineapple and caramel cake.

Classic Food of China

by Yan-Kit So

Macmillan Masterchefs, pounds 16.99

There are two books that are essential to understanding Chinese cooking: The Classic Food of China, by Yan-Kit So, and Chinese Gastronomy, by Hsiang Ju Lin & Tsuifeng Lin, now sadly out of print. You should begin by curling up and reading the first part of Yan-Kit So's beautifully written book. In this, she examines Chinese culinary culture through its literature, religion, history and regionality. The second part of the book is taken up with recipes, including chapters on bean curd dishes and sweet dishes. Yan-Kit So's reassuring notes may tempt even the timid into using some of the more unusual ingredients such as duck tongues or dried jelly fish. She allows the reader to find their own level, thus you can start with simple recipes such as stir-fried oyster mushrooms before progressing on to more intricate dishes like Sichuan smoked duck. Chinese Gastronomy, by Hsiang Ju Lin & Tsuifeng Lin, perhaps gives more insight into Chinese cooking than any other book. If you find a second-hand copy, buy it. Written by the wife and daughter of Lin Yutang, a Chinese writer and artist, it makes fascinating reading. It explains everything from the Chinese concept of flavour to how to control texture within recipes. It examines the development of Chinese cooking from ancient times, dedicates chapters to regional food, explains how meals are composed and illustrates each and every point with a neatly cross-referenced recipe. It was first published in 1969 by Thomas Nelson and then in 1982 by Jill Norman & Hobhouse.

Second-hand books can be ordered from: Tessa McKirdy at Cooks Books, 34 Marine Drive, Rottingdean, Sussex BN2 7HQ (01273 302707); Liz Serber, 61 Laburnum Street, Kent Wharf, London E2 8BD (0171-739 3031). Books for Cooks, 5 Blenheim Crescent, London W11 (0171-221 1992) are also an invaluable source of imported books.