Niki Segnit: learning to cook sideways

Lateral Cooking, Niki Segnit

“The person I imagine I’m talking to, is somebody who really likes cooking” says Niki Segnit, author of The Flavour Thesaurus and Lateral Cooking. These gastronomy bibles have been met with rave reviews from chefs and home cooks alike. Yotam Ottolenghi in his foreword says, “Niki Segnit brings together a towering edifice of cooks, food writers and experts to inspire the utmost confidence.” Both books explore cooking in ways that go beyond a single recipe, it’s how one dish leads to another.

Based on these principles of ‘learning to cook sideways’, Segnit is teaming up with Second Home cafe La Despensa, for a special supper club on the 21st February. A night of new dishes, delicious flavour combinations and Segnit herself, taking us through the ebbs and flows of cooking from her latest book. Book your seat here.

The Flavour Thesaurus, Niki Segnit

“With most cookbooks, the writer often needs to convince the reader to want to cook”, says Segnit when we spoke to her ahead of the event. “These books are for people who take great pleasure in what they’re making, or those who are looking to make a start.” So how did Segnit make a start? We asked about her earliest food memories, “I still think of home as my mother’s home, and not my actual home.” Something we all do, no? Growing up, “my mother’s cooking consisted of meat cooked in alcohol. The likes of coq au vin, beef bourguignon. I was probably drunk for the first 12 years of my life,” she says. These recipes came from one of the three cookbooks her mother owned. Her favourite to this day being “a 1970s M&S all colour cookery book. My mum used it the most during my childhood. It’s the repertoire of the food I grew up with, all very 1970s-French-bistro food. The recipes are really great and they really work. I taught myself to cook with that book.”

Some of the flavour combinations Segnit has highlighted in her books have to be tasted to be believed. One of her favourite discoveries, she delights in ‘dhokla’, a steamed savoury cake made from chickpea flour and spices. It’s in Lateral Cooking, “I make it for loads of people who have never come across it before. It’s so simple in terms of ingredients. I love Gujarati food.” From dhokla she goes on to, ‘irmik halva’. A sweet semolina pudding from Turkey. She describes the smell in her kitchen to that of a cinema foyer, as toasting the semolina in butter gives off a freshly-popped popcorn aroma. Most fascinating though, was combining the flavours of coffee and fruit. “It’s like chocolate and orange, and chocolate and fruit in general. Coffee is superior to chocolate as it doesn’t mask the flavours of the fruit.”

For a cookbook writer, food is everywhere. What does Segnit enjoy when she allows herself to indulge? “I do like sweets, sugary sweets. Traditional sweet shop sweets” and “big bags of bog standard crisps” she says. Although she doesn’t let herself go on the treats either, “ I made a lot of fudge and toffee for Lateral Cooking, but I had to give it away quite quickly.” Most importantly, the test that tells you everything you need to know about any praised food writer and cook, ‘The Four C’s’. She ranked the following from favourite to least, starting with crisps, “all of them, anything apart from the healthy ones,” then cheese, chocolate, and ending lastly with cake, “I can walk past a cake”.

Lateral Cooking is in its essence a handbook. One which enables readers to cook like the generations before them. A pinch of this, a dash of that, instead of meticulously measuring things out, or running out to find lemons, when in fact limes will do. Segnit describes the process as making her more resourceful in the kitchen, “if you’re planning a Sunday roast, it makes sense to have American pancakes for breakfast, as the same batter can be loosened with water for Yorkshire puddings.” Sound, sensible and delicious advice, and the reason why this supper club is not to be missed.

Get tickets here.

Lateral Cooking and The Flavour Thesaurus are available at Libreria.