As soon as I read Elizabeth Haigh’s introduction in her debut cookbook Makan: Recipes from the Heart of Singapore by Elizabeth Haigh I was hooked, not least because her story resonated so strongly with me. In a tale that is deeply familiar to me as a fellow child of Asian immigrants, it was only when Haigh left home to attend university that she felt a huge sense of displacement without access to her mum’s home-cooked Singaporean food. Like me, she felt frustrated that she’d taken her mum’s cooking skills for granted instead of learning to cook them with her whilst growing up. And also like me, she bombarded her mum with calls for step-by-step instructions, allowing her to make her favourite dishes as best she could whilst away from home.
Incidentally, this is how my mum’s website Mamta’s Kitchen came into being in 2001, after my sister I both experienced this same cultural yearning for our mum’s Indian home cooking once we left home.
Makan, the book born of Haigh’s re-connection to her cooking heritage, is not only a guide to a cuisine I adore, but also a love letter from its author to the land of her birth. Meaning ‘to eat’ or ‘dinner time’ in Malay, the book draws together Singaporean recipes handed down through the family, as learned, adapted and transcribed by Haigh.
Young, charismatic and talented, Haigh is the chef owner founder of Mei Mei, a Singaporean kopi tiam (coffee shop) in London. Previous to Mei Mei, she was the founding chef for Pidgin restaurant, where she achieved a Michelin star barely a year after its launch. She is also the creator of Kaizen House, a collaborative project to create and share stories through food; cooks and eaters are invited to explore how food brings us together via residencies, collaborative events and restaurants led by Haigh.
Like every Singaporean I have met thus far, Haigh and her family are obsessed with food, and talk about it constantly – from what they will have for dinner (whilst eating breakfast!) to ideas for meals later in the week. As Haigh points out, Singaporeans “live by their stomachs” and are very proud of their dedication to food.
Recipes are traditionally passed down orally from generation to generation, thus the only way to learn is via instructions from one’s elders and committing the recipes to memory. Haigh explains that she never felt much inclination to learn when she was younger, since her mum always cooked such delicious food for the family – not to mention how easy it is to find superb quality food in Singapore from one or other nearby hawker stall. Interestingly, a key challenge facing those hawker stalls today is that the younger generation are less interested in taking over their parents’ businesses and there’s a risk that many of those long-perfected recipes will be lost.
As a professionally trained and experienced chef, Haigh has applied a professional approach to family recipes, many of which were handed over with a lot of agak agak (guestimation) and very little by way of detail or instruction. These she transformed into properly defined recipes that unfamiliar and inexperienced cooks of Singaporean cuisine can easily follow and recreate.
To help understand the basics of Singaporean cooking, Haigh first provides an introduction to key ingredients, plus guidance on the techniques for blending and frying rempah (spice paste). This leads to the recipes themselves, split into chapters for nonya secrets, daily fare, super quick meals, summertime, pick me ups, sunday gatherings, celebration meals, sweets, and pantry.
The recipes in Nonya Secrets are the heart of Makan – Haigh remembers how she had to drag them out of her mother, translating what was in her mother’s head onto paper. These were also the hardest to capture as so much of the secret tips and tricks needed were not a part of her classically trained catering repertoire. Nonya food is “tangy, aromatic, spicy and herbal” and wonderfully fragrant rather than overpoweringly (chilli) hot. Key ingredients include coconut milk, lemongrass, tamarind, galangal and turmeric.
I love the photos that open this chapter – the first of her mum with baby Elizabeth, feasting from a traditional steamboat and the second an adult Haigh cooking and tasting with her mother.
Recipes are clearly presented alongside bright, beautiful photos that have me salivating the whole time I’m reading. Each has a short summary with Haigh’s memories of the dish, notes about family favourites, or some history and background about the dish. I mark so many recipes I want to make that Pete remarks it would be quicker to identify the few I don’t. I place a sticky tab against ‘Mee Soto’ Spiced Chicken Noodle Soup, ‘Gado Gado’ Malaysian Peanut Salad, ‘Otak Ota’ Nonya-spiced Fish Pâté, ‘Asam Ikan Pedas’ Fish Curry, ‘Nonya Chap Chai’ (a dish of mushrooms, vegetables, aromatics and glass vermicelli), Spiced Mutton Soup, ‘Mee Reubus’ Curried Noodle Soup, ‘Babi Pongteh’ Nonya Pork Stew, and ‘Ngo Hiang’ Five-spice Pork Rolls. Pete’s right – that’s nearly every recipe in the chapter!
In Daily Fare are dishes that form the mainstay of the Singaporean diet, the ones made again and again; none of these take longer than an hour from start to finish. Here you will find fried rice variations, Steamed Eggs, ‘Tahu Goreng’ Fried Tofu Salad, Steamed Fish with Tomato, Silken Tofu and Ginger, Chicken Rendang, Sweet and Sour Pork, Aubergine and Pork Mince Stir-fry, ‘Char Kway Teow’ Wok Fried Noodles, and ‘Bak Chor Mee’ Minced Pork Noodles.
Super Quick Meals is about recipes that are perfect for when time is short, many of which lean on having a well-stocked pantry of staples and aromats so the quick addition of one or two fresh ingredients is all you need to make a quick and delicious meal. I’m drawn to Stir-fried Cabbage with Dried Shrimps, Crispy Salt and Pepper Tofu with Chilli, Stir-fried Greens with Garlic, Prawn and Pineapple Curry, ‘San Bei Ji’ Three Cup Chicken, ‘Ma-Po Tofu’ Tofu with Minced Pork, Stir-fried Beef, and Beef Ho Fun. I can already see how these dishes will root themselves in our regular midweek menus.
The Summertime chapter celebrates the seasonality of UK living and – of course – cooking and eating outdoors. I’m waiting on an online order for shio koi paste to make the Barbecue Sweetcorn with Miso Koji Butter (and suspect I’ll want to face-plant into the sauce when I do). I’m also salivating at Coal-roasted Aubergine with Crispy Chilli Oil, Barbecue Lettuce with Thai Dressing, Barbecue Prawns with Samabal Chilli, Mutton Satay with Spicy Peanut Sauce, ‘Char Siu’ Honey Roast Pork, and Duck Heart Satay with Sticky Glaze (my heart beats harder just reading it!)
In Pick Me Ups Haigh counters the tendency of UK consumers to (unfairly) associate Chinese food with unhealthy, greasy and greedy takeaways by sharing instead an array of traditional Chinese recipes that are excellent for your health. There are light and bright soups including Watercress Soup, Chicken Macaroni Soup, Ginseng Chicken Soup, Sweetcorn and Spare Rib Soup, and Beef Short Rib Soup with Carrot and Onion. Rice features heavily too – in a rice cooker Cabbage Rice recipe (where a small amount of lap cheong Chinese sausage goes a long way), and in a series of congee (rice porridge) dishes; fish congee, chicken congee and crab congee. The last two recipes in this chapter are the winter warming ‘Tauk Yu Bak’ Braised Pork Belly (in which pork belly is slowly simmered in soy sauce, with tofu puffs and whole boiled eggs added towards the end), and Braised Chicken with Black Fungus and Shiitake. When you think of true Chinese food, bring to mind these dishes rather than the menu of your local Chinese takeaway.
Sundays are a day for family and friends to come together and eat, hence the Sunday Gatherings recipes are perfect for sharing. I can readily imagine being sat around a big table diving into Fish Head Claypot, Hainanese Chicken Rice (which a friend has made and raved about), Smoked Ox Cheek Rendang, and Crisp Roast Pork Belly. Two rice classics, ‘Nasi Goreng’ Indonesian Fried Rice and ‘Nasi Lemak’ Coconut Rice are also under this heading, so ubiquitous to family meals are these dishes.
Taking this a step further, we reach the Celebration Meals chapter, the kind of food cooked for celebrations and parties. Some dishes are special because the ingredients (such as fresh crab and duck) are a bit more expensive than you might buy for every day eating, and yes the famous Singapore Chilli Crab is one such dish, as are a decadently-laden Singapore Laksa, and ‘Lor Arkh’ Teochew Soy-braised Duck.
Now we have feasted on the savoury, we come to the Sweets which shares treats to eat and to drink. The first recipe here is sugar-sweetened Lime Juice, made with calamansi citrus fruits (if you can find them, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that my small calamansi bush might bear fruit again – so far it has done so only in the year it was bought with fruits already almost ripe for the picking). Other drinks include Home-made Soy Milk, and Milo Dinosaur (a popular chocolate malt drink combined with condensed milk and ice).
For desserts and sweet snacks, we have Almond Jelly with Lychees in Syrup, Coconut Sago with Palm Sugar Syrup, Sweet Potatoes in Ginger Syrup (why haven’t I thought to use sweet potatoes in a sweet dish before now?), ‘Bubur Pulot Hitam’ Black Glutinous Rice Porridge with Coconut, Banana Fritters with Miso Caramel (I am confident I could eat all 6 servings of on my own!), Kaya (I must briefly pimp this alternative sous vide kaya recipe), Soya Pudding with Palm Sugar, and Chendol Pudding (a pandan and mung bean paste formed by piping small vermiform squiggles into an ice bath and served with coconut milk and kidney beans). This last sweet is quite unlike anything I’ve ever encountered – one of the joys of reading a cookbook on an unfamiliar cuisine.
Pantry is the last chapter but certainly not the least, for it’s here that we find Sambal (chilli) and other sauces and oils, curry powders, pickles and relishes (including two versions of ‘Acar Awak’ Nonya Mixed Vegetable Pickle, which I adore), dried shrimps, rempahs (spice pastes), and stocks.
At the back, a handy Glossary (which adds greatly to the key ingredients section at the start), a decent Index, a helpful list of Stockists for specialist ingredients, and conversion tables for weights, volumes and temperatures.
This is an easy book to cook from (which should be a given for a cookbook but, as we know, isn’t always) and the recipes are addictively delicious – we’ve already made the beef ho fun a few times and the three cup chicken will certainly be a regular. We also really enjoyed the fried tofu salad and the braised pork belly had me singing to myself as I ate – everything I hoped for when seeking to learn more about Singaporean food. Makan is also a wonderfully warm and inviting cookbook, brimming with vibrancy in its photographs, and full of happiness in the stories and memories associated with each dish.
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Kavey Eats received a review copy of Makan by Elizabeth Haigh from publisher Bloomsbury Absolute.