Breaking the cookbook addiction

A new thesaurus explains how to pair flavours, freeing amateurs to create recipes

Breaking the cookbook addiction
Istock; Illustration by Taylor Shute

Most people would blanch at the very thought of banana guacamole. Not Niki Segnit, author of The Flavour Thesaurus: A Compendium of Pairings, Recipes and Ideas for the Creative Cook. The idea that the yellow fruit could replace avocado in the classic dip made sense in theory, the British writer explains on the telephone from her London kitchen: “There’s a green grassiness to young bananas that they share with avocado, and a softness.” The final result, however, was a disaster, she reports with a laugh. “It was so slimy—really, really, really disgusting.”

Such adventurous spirit and good humour underlies The Flavour Thesaurus, to be published in North America this month. The taste glossary, which includes hundreds of food pairings based on dividing 99 ingredients into a 16-category flavour wheel ranging from “Sulphurous” to “Citrusy,” has been a huge success in the U.K., snagging the first-time author a weekly column on flavour pairings in the Times and a Galaxy National Book Award nomination in the “food and drink” category, alongside Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson (Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty won).

The project was prompted by personal need, says Segnit, who has worked for food conglomerates in marketing. She loves to cook but had become so cookbook-addicted she lacked the confidence to toss ingredients together spontaneously. She looked for a flavour reference book, but couldn’t find anything she liked. “It’s the kind of book an amateur had to write because no professional would be so stupid,” she says drolly.

Practical information abounds: why green pepper freshens a stir-fry more than red pepper, how cumin is brilliant on roasted cauliflower, lamb’s affinity with herbal flavours, as well as recipes for a killer Brussels sprouts-bacon salad and cardamom-chocolate tart. The Flavour Thesaurus also passes the great-food-book litmus test: it’s equally at home on a kitchen or a bedside table. Segnit’s playful prose is witty and erudite, her research, inventive: a “Bell Pepper and Egg” entry references The Sopranos, a bizarre scholarly paper titled “Peppers and Eggs: Red-Blooded Males and Mother Worship in Italian-American Crime Culture,” and an omelette recipe—all in under 100 words.

Three years of research were punctuated by epiphanies and tough decisions. Where to place coriander seed in her flavour taxonomy posed a major dilemma for Segnit: in “Floral Fruity” with fig and vanilla? Or in “Citrusy” with lemon and ginger? (“Floral Fruity” prevailed.)

At the outset, she thought the book would be “more rules and formulas,” and certainly there’s some of that. The “cabbage-shellfish” entry, for instance, explains that the dimethyl sulfide in cabbage makes the pairing work. But there’s a merciful shortage of science lessons on, say, why asparagus and tarragon marry well—just that they do. Taking a more subjective approach freed Segnit to dismiss chocolate-dipped strawberries quite rightfully as romantic cliché (“like fruit wearing big underpants”) and extoll the less-known combination of chocolate and thyme, even adding a recipe for thyme ice cream.

The volume isn’t intended to be definitive, Segnit writes, but rather inspirational springboard—for seeing cucumber and mint as “gastronomic air conditioning,” or carrots and walnuts as sharing “woodland” flavour. Writing it made her a more adventurous cook, Segnit says. Before she knew of nutmeg’s traditional use—cutting richness in custards—she rarely used it. Testing a recipe using milk chocolate and nutmeg was a revelation: “You get the pine-citrus-pepper flavour in nutmeg that’s very complex and fresh. It cuts through the cloying nature of milk chocolate and adds exotic spiciness.” The spice has other uses too, apparently: the “nutmeg-avocado” entry touts its “aphrodisiac effect on men.”

Segnit wanted to offer surprises. “I’d like to think people who have shelves of books, like I have, will say, ‘Oh, new stuff! Not just stuff recycled from Elizabeth David and all of those people.’ ” There’s only one problem with that, of course: Segnit’s success at making readers see flavours and flavour-pairings afresh makes her one of “those people” now, too.