The chef tells Ella Walker about prising recipes
from her mum’s brain, missing hawkers, and
the need for more Singaporean representation.
The trains that rattle directly above chef Elizabeth Haigh’s Singapore coffee shop clack-clack-clack down the phone line, while her neighbours appear to be drilling with total abandon. She shouts over the clamour nonplussed – all that noise means action, life returning, businesses reopening.
Not that her Borough Market restaurant, Mei Mei, has been dormant through the last year. Opening just a few months before the pandemic completely shuttered bars and restaurants, Haigh quickly pivoted to takeout, meal kits, and feeding the vulnerable and local key workers. Speaking a few days before outdoor dining resumed in England, she’s buzzed. “I cannot wait to share things on plates again; I’m sick to death of putting everything in takeaway packaging.”
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 (“I would be baffled at beans on toast”), using seasonal ingredients found in Britain (her dad’s British; Sunday roasts were a weekly staple).
In the book, she writes: ‘When people move and mix together, food just gets better’ – and is adamant that’s true, “because food represents community. And without community, there’s no food, there’s no recipes, there’s no knowledge of culture and dishes.” 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. “That’s the way to get your mother, bribe her by using the grandson as leverage,” she says wryly. “I just wanted it to be normalised, so it’s a cuisine everyone recognises more, and that he can be proud of.”
In a climate where Asian hate is increasingly making headlines, exacerbated by Covid, and attacks on individuals and businesses are escalating, representation is again crucial. “I’ve had that all my life, right?” says Haigh of anti-Asian racism. “I’m glad that everyone’s got more of a voice to stand up against it now, because it’s just not tolerable.
“If you normalise this style of cuisine and this food and people know more about Singaporean culture,” she continues, “it [becomes] normal. It’s just representation; it really does matter.”
ABOVE LEFT: Makan: Recipes from the Heart of Singapore | Kris Kirkham/PA
ABOVE RIGHT: Elizabeth Haigh | Pomme Hongsananda/PA
Unravelling and then recreating her mother’s recipes was a challenge in itself though; Haigh had to translate her mum’s ingredient ‘guestimation’ and dismantle some of the internal scaffolding of her own classical French training, “building it back up again, as per how my mum wanted it to be”. She hadn’t previously needed those recipes sequestered in her brain. “Traditionally in my generation, not lots of Singaporeans cook,” Haigh explains. “In Singapore, we’re absolutely spoilt for choice by hawker food. It’s more common to go eat somewhere because it’s so cheap.”
The homesickness involved in not being able to travel or access that delicious, clamorous street food world, was another motivation for Makan, “to recreate those dishes and recreate those memories”.
Ask her what she’ll do the second she can visit Singapore again, and Haigh is instantly imagining taking a taxi from the airport straight to her customary hawker. “I’ll probably be there with my dad, sitting at our usual table,” she says. “We’ll order all the satays, and a bucket of beer. And probably some barbecue chicken wings – everything’s on the barbecue. And they have stingray as well, which is wrapped up in banana leaves and a layer of sambal tumis belacan [a spicy, limey sambal sauce with fermented shrimp paste]. And it’s just absolutely divine. For me, that’s heaven. It hits you in the face, that chilli is so spicy. The chillies in Southeast Asia are just another level of heat.”
The moment dictates the meal: “For Singaporeans, that’s how we choose what we eat and when”. So if you need something hearty, it’d be her Hainanese chicken rice (“the recipe I’ve built my business on”) or a rendang. If under the weather, she’d turn to noodle soups, and for celebrations, it’d have to be Singapore chilli crab.
Whatever the mood though, eating is paramount. Instead of saying ‘Hello’ as a greeting, Singaporeans are likely to say, ‘Are you hungry?’, or, ‘Shall we get some food?’.
“Let’s cut out the necessities,” says Haigh with a laugh. “Are we going to eat or not?” And if whoever you’re with isn’t planning on eating, then “it’s basically, ‘Oh, are you gonna watch me eat?’” It’s that delight – in eating, cooking and trying food – that Haigh hopes to bestow. “I’m a feeder, just like my mum,” she says. “I wanted to write Makan so much because I wanted to share that joy.” And you can’t not feel it in every recipe.
Makan: Recipes From The Heart Of Singapore by Elizabeth Haigh is published by Bloomsbury Absolute, priced £26. Photography Kris Kirkham. Available Now.
Words by Ella Walker, PA
Stir-fried beef recipe
- 250g boneless beef rump, sliced into bite-sized pieces
- 4tbsp cooking oil
- 1½tsp finely chopped root ginger
- 2tsp finely chopped garlic
- 1 red pepper, cut into bite-sized pieces similar to the beef
- 1 fresh, medium-hot, red Dutch chilli, deseeded and finely chopped (optional)
- 2–4tsp dried chilli flakes, or to taste
- 2 spring onions (green part), finely sliced
- 1tsp toasted sesame oil
For the marinade:
- 1tsp rice wine (Shaoxing or sake)
- ¼tsp salt
- ½tsp light soy sauce
- ¾tsp dark soy sauce
- 1½tsp potato flour
- 1½tsp water
- Stir the marinade ingredients together in a bowl. Add the beef and mix in well with the marinade.
- Add three tablespoons of the oil to a wok set over a high heat and swirl the oil around to coat the wok. When it is starting to smoke, add the beef and stir-fry briskly, separating the pieces using a Chinese spatula. When the pieces are separated and still a little pink, remove them from the wok and set aside.
- Add the remaining oil to the wok, then add the ginger and garlic. Allow them to sizzle for a few seconds to release their fragrance. Tip in the red pepper and fresh chilli, if using, and stir-fry until hot.
- Return the beef to the wok and give everything a good stir, then add the chilli flakes. When all is hot and fragrant, add the spring onions and remove from the heat. Stir in the sesame oil, check the seasoning and serve.
TIP. Stir-fried venison: Venison is a very healthy alternative to beef, as it is rich in iron, potassium and zinc and is very lean. Just replace the beef in the recipe above with 250g venison fillet, cut into strips, and add a splash of stock at the end to prevent the stir-fry from being too dry.
Spicy green beans recipe with chilli & garlic
Serves 2 as a side dish
- 1tbsp dried shrimps
- 6 dried red chillies
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled
- 2 banana shallots, peeled
- 2tbsp cooking oil
- 2tsp belachan (fermented shrimp paste)
- 250g green beans, trimmed and cut into 1.5cm pieces
- 2tbsp water
- 2tbsp pork floss (rousong), optional
- Soak the dried shrimps and chillies in warm water for at least 10 minutes or up to one hour, then drain. If you don’t want the dish to be too spicy, remove the seeds from the chillies, then place them in a blender with the soaked shrimps, garlic and shallots. Blend together to make a rough paste.
- Heat the oil in a wok over a medium heat. Add the chilli-shrimp paste and stir-fry until aromatic, then add the belachan and stir for a couple more minutes to cook the paste out.
- Turn up the heat slightly, add the green beans and give it all a good stir. Stir-fry for a couple of minutes. Add the water to help ‘steam-cook’ the beans and season with salt, then turn the heat down and continue cooking for four to five minutes or until the beans are tender (no more than seven minutes in total).
- Serve immediately with pork floss sprinkled on top, if using.
Wonton soup recipe
Serves 4, or 6 as a side
- ½ pack wonton skins/wrappers (readily available in Chinese supermarkets)
- 2L salted water
- 2L chicken stock
- Soy sauce
- Choi sum or lettuce, shredded
- Spring onions, chopped
- Toasted sesame oil
- Salt and white pepper
For the filling:
- 200g minced pork (with 10% fat)
- ¾tsp salt
- ½tsp caster sugar
- ½tsp toasted sesame oil
- A good pinch of white pepper
- 1tbsp rice wine (shaoxing or sake)
- 2tsp corn or groundnut oil
- 1tbsp water
- ½tsp cornflour, plus extra for dusting
- 170g peeled raw prawns, chopped
- Start by making the wonton filling. Put all the ingredients, except the prawns, in a bowl and mix together by hand for five minutes. You want to make sure that the pork and seasonings are thoroughly combined. Mix in the chopped prawns until evenly incorporated.
- To make each wonton, take a wonton skin and put about one teaspoon of filling in the middle. Wet the edges of the skin with water, then bring the two opposite corners together to form a triangle, trying to remove as much air from the wonton as possible (to prevent it from bursting open later on). Press the edges together to seal. Dust the bottom of the wonton with a tiny bit of cornflour to prevent them from sticking together.Continue making wontons like this – you should be able to make about three dozen, depending on how generous you are with the filling.
- Bring the salted water to the boil in a saucepan, then turn the heat down to medium. Add the wontons one at a time to the water. Don’t rush and don’t crowd the pan, cook in batches if you need to. Once a wonton is cooked, it will float to the surface, around four to five minutes. Scoop out the cooked wonton and place in cold water for 10 seconds. Lift out and set aside. Continue until all your wontons are cooked.
- To complete the soup, bring the chicken stock to the boil in a large pot, then turn the heat down to medium. Season with salt, pepper and soy sauce to taste. Add the choi sum or lettuce, then add the cooked wontons, dropping them gently into the soup. Take care not to stir hard as you don’t want to break the delicate wontons. Ladle into bowls. Alternatively, I find it easier to put the wontons into bowls and ladle the stock into the bowls. Garnish each with chopped spring onions and a drop of sesame oil.