Singaporean eateries need to be in mix
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Chef Elizabeth Haigh tells Ella Walker about prising recipes from her mum’s brain and the need for more Singaporean representation.
Her Borough Market restaurant, Mei Mei, opened just a few months before the initial lockdown, prompting Haigh to pivot to takeout, meal kits, and feeding the vulnerable and local key workers.
Singapore-born Haigh (33), trained as an architect before turning to food via a stint on MasterChef in 2011. She went on to win a Michelin star while at Pidgin in Hackney. Now she’s written her first cookbook, Makan, whose title means ‘dinnertime’, or ‘let’s eat’.
Haigh calls the book “a love letter to my family” and “our Singaporean heritage”. It’s packed with the Singaporean dishes she grew up eating, using seasonal ingredients found in Britain.
She says people’s interpretation of Singaporean food is often confined to Singapore noodles, which is nonsense. “One type of noodles in Singapore? It doesn’t exist,” Haigh scoffs. “[That is] a fusion of someone’s idea of Singapore.”
While high streets tend to be brilliantly spiked with restaurants celebrating Indian, Chinese, Thai, Indonesian, and Vietnamese food, Singaporean restaurants often just aren’t in the mix. “There are many great ones, but just not enough,” says Haigh, and it’s that representation that’s been missing.
Partly it’s down to the exceptional culinary secret-keeping of Singaporean home cooks. “Makan represents the culture of my mum,” explains Haigh. “She cooks a lot, like a lot of her generation, but they don’t really pass on that knowledge because it’s just their way of showing love, that they do all the cooking.”
Haigh had to doggedly prise the knowledge out of her mum, but you’ll be glad she did. The recipes in the ‘Nonya Secrets’ chapter, featuring her spiced chicken noodle soup, Gado Gado peanut salad, Malay hot and sour noodles, in particular are ones “she would go probably to her grave with if she could; I had to beg her to share them with me”.
Telling her mum these very personal recipes were to be published in a book “took some convincing”, but Haigh had a strategy. “I promised a lot of cooking – and a dedication.”
It was also important to her to be able to make these dishes for her three-year-old son Riley, so he could share them with his friends.
Makan: Recipes From The Heart Of Singapore by Elizabeth Haigh is published by Bloomsbury Absolute, priced £26. Photography Kris Kirkham.