I bought this the other day as I realised, like the author states in her intro, that I am too attached to recipe books. I was hoping that this would inspire me to try new combinations and start a bit more experimentation. And it has. However, before buying its really important to know what this book is and more importantly what it is not.
What this book is not
- a book with detailed recipes (it doesn't really have any recipes at all)
- a book with illustrations of food (there are no illustrations at all of food)
- a traditional cookery book (no measurements, no oven settings, no real cookery guide)
What this book is
- a jumping off point where you identify flavours with a brief guide to examples
- a well written explanation of how flavour combinations work
- a way for budding chefs to try new flavours with confidence
Not all the combinations are to my liking. And you won't be using this as a cooking bible. However, its very readable and as a resource for a budding chef it really takes some beating. It allows you to be creative rather than follow a recipe to the letter. Which is exactly what I wanted from this book. If, however, you are expecting recipes then avoid.
on 25 June 2010
This book has had stunning reviews in the national newspapers, and I decided to buy it as a present for my husband, the chef in our household. On the tube home, I had a quick flick through it out of curiosity...and I haven't been able to part with it since.
The concept of `The Flavour Thesaurus' is utterly, utterly genius. Segnit has taken 99 basic flavours (mint, coriander, basil, strawberry etc) and researched 980 pairings of them. The result is part recipe-book, part food memoir, part flavour compendium. (The English Language geek in me feels compelled to point out that `thesaurus' is a misnomer - even similar flavours are NOT synonyms, jeez, though the book retains Roget's format).
Some of these pairings are familiar, such as Bacon & Egg, whilst others (Avocado & Mango, anyone?) are not. Now and then, Segnit provides a recipe; many of these sound incredible, and despite being the most amateur of cooks, I reckon even I could manage many of them. Under Melon & Rose, for example, she merely tells you to drown a cantaloupe melon in rosewater syrup, so that it tastes like "a fruity take on gulab jamun". Can you even read that sentence without wanting to dash to the supermarket for the ingredients?
Segnit also peppers the book with restaurant and dish recommendations - not in an insufferable shiny London lifestyle way, but in an enthusiastic, unpretentious, eating-out-with-your-mates "you really have to try this" way. If only she had supplied phone numbers so we could immediately make reservations.
The real revelation, though, is Segnit's language. It is, quite simply, superb. Modern cookery writing seems to fall into three distinct camps: venomous snob, obsessed with tablecloths and ambience rather than the food itself; faux-geezer dahn the faux-pub; and flirty girl breathlessly enthusing over cake. With `The Flavour Thesaurus', Segnit may well have ended the careers of many of these over-hyped morons.
For a start, her prose is endlessly entertaining. Breezy erudition sits alongside hilarious similes. She is a whizz with description: when she tells you that cloves on their own taste the same as sucking on a rusty nail, you half suspect she conducted a comparative taste test just to be sure. She incorporates references so wide-ranging that both Sybil Kapoor and Velma from Scooby Doo rate a mention. Then there are her unmissable riffs: p 148 instructs us on that "essentially unitary quantity, fishandchips", and insists they must be served in "newsless newspaper" (never polystyrene boxes) and always eaten at a bus stop or "on the wall outside the petrol station". Read about Instinctos and you will be snorting with laughter (and visiting Pizza Hut at the first excuse). I have now read `The Flavour Thesaurus' from cover to cover, and still I have not finished.
I must temper my enthusiasm with a few tiny criticisms just to prove this is a genuine review. At nigh on £20 full price, it's expensive for a book without illustrations or photographs (though note Amazon has since discounted it). It assumes a certain level of prior culinary knowledge, which was sometimes frustrating to a novice like me, though it won't bother those with lots of cookbooks and greater competence in the kitchen. The integration of the recipes into the text - Elizabeth David and Simon Hopkinson style - can be irksome until you've got busy with post-it notes. The index needs further sub-division: `crab', for example, offers 11 entries in the index, but the recipe for crab cakes is easily missed under Butternut Squash & Bacon.
But these are such minor complaints given the enormous appeal of this book. My husband hovers over it constantly, anxious for his promised present. My brother and my best friend have already asked to borrow it. `The Flavour Thesaurus' is truly a classic in the making, and no foodie's bookshelf is going to be complete without it.
EDITED TO ADD, the husband (Latin geek) points out that 'thesaurus' means treasury. Well, whatever language you're using, this book is ACE.
UPDATE - JANUARY 2011 Recently, the aforementioned husband, brother and I went to a "book dinner" organised by a local restaurant with recipes inspired by 'The Flavour Thesaurus', at which the author read from her book. Niki Segnit was lovely and exactly as she comes across in the text - funny, clever, and passionate about food in a very down-to-earth way. There was much discussion and disagreement about which flavour combinations worked, but most options on the menu were utterly delicious. If you get the chance to do this, I highly recommend the experience.
UPDATE - FEBRUARY 2011 In response to comments below, my husband and I were both wrong - 'thesaurus' is Greek! Also, a fellow customer reviewer has expressed scepticism about the number of positive votes I've had for this review. I don't know why I've had so many votes (though I'm very grateful for the ones I've received), but I haven't been voting for myself, and I don't have 200 friends to vote on my behalf. In response to his/her insinuations, I also want to make clear I'm not related to this or any other author, nor paid by anyone - including Amazon - to submit reviews (more's the pity). Please also click on the link which leads to my other reviews so you can see that I regularly leave critical reviews as well as "effusive" ones. Of course other readers may disagree with my opinion of this book; but it has been a bestseller, and the author now writes for The Times, so I'm definitely not her only fan. As always, your mileage may vary.
on 2 January 2011
I recently brought this book to a local cheese shop and was reading it in line. One of the assistants looked over and said, "Oh, I see you brought the Bible." Funny - that's what I've been calling it as well!
I originally bought this book for my boyfriend, but read about 10 pages and decided I needed to keep it. I have since bought copies for many friends and plan on buying it for more.
The word that best describes this book is "delicious". I had to stop reading it in bed because it just made me hungry. It describes every flavor combination humorously, effectively, and delightfully. The quip for potatoes and lamb is that they "should get a room". The chapter on saffron made me drool. This book is well-organized and easy to flip through to read certain chapters, but also works well cover-to-cover. Speaking of which, it has the most delicious cover art I've ever seen. An absolutely beautiful book.
on 25 June 2010
The best cookbooks become my preferred bedtime reading, piling up next to the bed. The Flavour Thesaurus is top of the pile and it's gone one better - it's jumped the queue ahead of Steig Larsson as my preferred Tube journey read. The Flavour Thesaurus is anecdotally wittier than Nigel Slater's 'Toast' and more use than `LaRousse' (which rarely makes it off my kitchen shelf). Niki Segnit's observations on flavours, their combinations and cooking are as delicious as her recipes. Her genuine love of food makes this book deliciously moorish; each bite-sized entry makes me want for more. Like Ferrero Rocher, one just isn't enough. There are very few cookbooks that are researched and written as brilliantly as this that need not rely on high quality photograpy to tempt the senses. This will make you laugh and get the gastric juices flowing. The Flavour Thesaurus actually makes me throw on my apron and get messy in the kitchen whilst indulging in a glass of champagne and a Marlboro. I will be giving this book to every truly good cook I know. They won't be disappointed.
on 22 December 2011
Having been lucky enough to get an invitation to the book launch its only right I write a review.
This is a fabulous book: original, witty, insightful and useful. Writer Niki Segnit has taken 99 ingredients, divided into 16 sections. You'll find horseradish and caper under `Mustardy' and cucumber and anise under `Green and Grassy'. Segnit then takes these ingedients one by one and cross-references it to the other 98. Opening the book randomly, I find `Potato and beetroot' - nothing to scare the horses, there - do it again and I stumble across `Anise and Parsnip', a rather less obvious combination. The result is over 900 flavour pairings. It is a winning formula.
However, what stops it becoming merely a dry, reference book for food geeks (although the latter will love it) and turns it into something all together more pleasurable is Segnit's delicious prose.
A lovers' tiff melts away under a plate of Globe Artichoke and bacon pasta. Anchovy and garlic are recast as Taylor and Burton in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. The basil and egg section is a homage to Dr Suess: "Of the green things that we tested / Basil simply can't be bested". I'll stop now and let you discover the rest for yourselves.
In amongst the humour and anecdotes, you'll find plenty of robust history and science. Segnit has clearly done her research. Her gift is to present it in a way that informs and educates whilst making you smile and your belly rumble. There are recipes too and where she omits the details of a dish she points you in the direction of where to find it. The likes of Simon Hopkinson, Richard Olney and Fergus Henderson crop up alongside Pellegrino Artusi and M.F.K. Fisher.
There is a bit of wine too. In the globe artichoke section, Segnit notes the vegetable's reputation as a wine killer, noting "any enemy of wine is an enemy of mine". Good to hear. Thankfully, she avoids staid, old fashioned food and wine matches - the world has had enough of them. One of my favourite mention of wine comes in the Beef and Liver section where Segnit counsels against taking a Beef Wellington out of the oven before it is cooked:
on 10 February 2013
It's taken me 18 months to review this book. Largely because the only illustration - the flavour wheel - completely baffled me initially and I couldn't be bothered to work it out. I'm a scientist and firmly believe that illustrations are either an invaluable blessing or a pointless curse - too often the latter, particularly in cookbooks. The main value of a good illustration is that it presents complex information in a simple way - much clearer than words, for example. The flavour wheel does the opposite! It takes simple information and presents it in a complex way that completely muddies the waters. All it does is present the arbitrarily chosen 99 flavours, grouped into very subjective categories, in a graphical, very pseudo-scientific way. It gives you no useful information about how any of the flavours might be combined, or how they should not be combined. Compare this, for example, with a colour wheel - from which, presumably, this pointless graphic was derived. Colours can be grouped scientifically, and the wheel is invaluable in showing what colours work with others, which clash - and why. I'm not at all sure that the concept can be usefully translated to flavour pairings - it certainly isn't here. Calling the book a Thesaurus doesn't help either - it isn't! So, what about the text?
The Pairings Index, 17 invaluable pages tucked away at the back of the book, is the main really useful element of this book. It takes the 99 ingredients and lists suggested flavour pairings. Generally, these work well, although omissions should not be taken too seriously, and are presented simply and usefully. Each pairing is referenced to pages in the main text that discuss the pairing in more detail, sometimes with terse, but useful, recipes. Bearing in mind that, for most courses, two or three main elements is all you need, the Pairings Index can be invaluable for creating your own menus. However, it does assume a lot of understanding of cooking options to get an appropriate balance of textures and an interesting and complementary sauce. Like many reviewers, I can take or leave the chattier bits of the text, but the stuff expanding on why flavour combinations work can be extremely interesting and useful.
Some reviewers criticise the limitations of the 99 ingredients, but you have to stop somewhere! It is easy to find something similar to your favourite missing ingredient and use the pairings listed for that. For leeks (missing), reference onions, for example, or fennel (missing) - anise, and so on.
So, a really useful reference, let down by a silly diagram, inaccurate title, and unnecessary padding - that some obviously find entertaining. Hence, three stars and a recommendation to buy it if you are an experienced cook that wants a more complete understanding of what goes with what, and why. This is not a succinct scientific reference because there is little science behind flavour combinations. Understand that, and you'll find the book useful.
on 9 August 2010
I bought this book as soon as it came out partly because of some outstanding reviews, but mainly because I couldn't believe that no one has tackled why certain flavours go together before. So obvious.....doh!
I showed my new purchase to a foodie friend of mine over dinner. He salivated over it to the detriment of the meal we were eating. The conversation wasn't so hot either. To make a point, I left it with him. And then I left him. One copy down.
I showed my next copy to my sister in law and it hasn't been seen since. Two copies down.
My third and final copy hasn't left my handbag. What a joy to have something like this to dip into. Niki Segnit has come up with perhaps the most innovative approach to food writing since Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking. But where as Harold's opus demands scholarly concentration, The Flavour Thesaurus, is full of humour and life. This is what she has to say on the combination of celery and shellfish:
"Waking from a coma in season 6 of The Sopranos, the first thing Tony asks for is a lobster roll from the Pearl Oyster Bar in the West Village. If you've ever wondered why mobsters are fat, you might like to note that these include melted butter AND mayonnaise. Mix lobster meat, a little finely chopped celery, a squeeze of lemon and seasoning, and leave in the fridge while you open out hot dog buns like books and brown the insides in a pan of melted butter. Stuff the lobster mix into the bun. Eat lying back on a sun lounger, thinking of New England."
So although the basic premise is the matching of pairs of flavours, there is just so, so much more. Food history, recipes, delicious morsels from other great food writers and cultural references from Chekov to the Rolling Stones, make this a life affirming treasury for the confirmed foodie or anyone who has a passing interest in why we eat what we do. Segnit has a charming, intimate style - you just know she'd be a brilliant dinner companion - she manages to combine her hard won research with a sparklingly light anecdote or knowing opinion.
Utterly terrific. Just remember to buy more than one copy.
on 24 June 2010
Anyone who has the slightest interest in eating, let alone cooking, should own this book. I loved it.
It's an unbelievably well researched, thorough exploration of how flavours combine, that opens up all sorts of surprising possibilities for anyone who's ever wondered what to do with the forlorn stuff that lurks in their fridge... or with those slightly intimidating ingredients that you've never quite had the courage to tackle.
But it's also much more than that. Although, as a thesaurus, it follows a Roget like structure, that's where the comparison ends. Far from just being a reference book, The Flavour Thesaurus is a brilliant read - something to dip in and out of for sheer enjoyment, as well as for culinary inspiration. Niki Segnit is a fantastic writer. She seems to have a knack for conjouring up the exact character of the flavours she discusses. She uses truly original, often laugh-out-loud descriptions that are so much better observed and so much more evocative than the usual run-of-the-mill stuff that food writers tend to churn out.
on 9 August 2010
What a fantastic book!
This is probably the most inspirational cookery book I've ever read. By mostly eschewing full length recipes in favour of ideas, sketches, anecdotes and improbable analogies, Niki Segnit has written a book where every page has enough ideas to keep me cooking for a week.
I can think of very few books that are both practical enough to use on a daily basis (when you fancy a stir fry and have a fridge full of brocolli, why not mix in some chilli and coarse ground peanuts?) and enjoyable enough to dip into as light reading (the much quoted comparison of lime and coriander to the "whoo whoos" in Sympathy for the Devil), but The Flavour Thesaurus is both of these - to leaf casually through it is to immediately be reminded of just how much you love cooking.
If I have one complaint, then it's just that it's so good that it could be twice as long without being the worse for it.
on 23 November 2011
This is a wonderful book. It has recipes in it, but is not a cookery book as such. It links flavours together in pairs, sometimes based on chemical composition, sometimes on folk practice from around the world, but often in the most surprising of ways. This means that you can create variants of your own favourite recipes. It is entirely unpretentious and is written in a style that is sometimes laugh-out-loud funny.