With odd ingredients calling to her, Niki Segnit expands 'The Flavor Thesaurus'

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The woodiness of pecans are also familiar in maple syrup and pine nuts. Photo courtesy of ShutterStock.

Some people are born with culinary awareness in their DNA, knowing when to add a pinch of this or a dash of that. Chefs have built careers on their ability to create exceptional flavor profiles with less than obvious ingredients. The rest of us have Niki Segnit. Her 2010 cookbook, The Flavor Thesaurus, identified 99 flavors, which she organized into nearly 5,000 pairings. That's a lot of matchmaking. Her follow-up, The Flavor Thesaurus: More Flavors, expands the lingua franca of food using plant-based ingredients.

Take miso. With notes of barnyard, nuts, brown butter, honey, olives, and exotic fruits such as banana, mango, and pineapple, it can be difficult for Westerners to describe. Like an aged cheese, miso's flavor profile develops as it ferments and provides many opportunities for flavor discovery. 

Beyond a morning cup of coffee, Segnit offers pairings with fennel, dates, and prunes. In Greece, Turkey, and Albania, mixing fennel liqueurs with coffee to go with a custard-based dessert is a popular way to punctuate a boringly sweet dish.

Pecan has notes of butter and brown sugar and the sweetness comes through as the nuts are chewed. "It's almost as if you're creating the nut milk as you're masticating the ingredient," says Segnit. Photo courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing.

Loosely based on Roget's Thesaurus, Segnit organizes pairings into inspiring expressions for the palate, plotting tastes into 360-degree circles, where flavors share a commonality with their neighbor. Furthering the breakdown, Segnit developed flavor families. "All the different connections that you find can lead you to a path to find a way of liking an ingredient, of opening up your palate," she says.

In her book The Flavor Thesaurus: More Flavors, Niki Segnit describes the notes and tastes of plant-based ingredients, something she says is often difficult for the layperson to do. Photo courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing.