Life

Elizabeth Haigh wants you to experience sheer joy of Singaporean food

Chef Elizabeth Haigh tells Ella Walker about prising recipes from her mum's brain, missing hawkers, and the need for more Singaporean representation

Stir-fried beef from Makan: Recipes from the Heart of Singapore by Elizabeth Haigh

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 London 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 take-out, 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 in Britain and Ireland tend to have restaurants celebrating Indian, Chinese, Thai and, more lately, 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.”

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 [street] 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.”

Makan: Recipes From The Heart Of Singapore by Elizabeth Haigh is published by Bloomsbury Absolute, priced £26. Photography Kris Kirkham. Below are three recipes from the book for you to try.

STIR-FRIED BEEF

(Serves 4)

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

Method:

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.

SPICY GREEN BEANS WITH CHILLI AND 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

Salt

Method:

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

(Serves 4, or 6 as a side)

½ pack wonton skins/wrappers

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 per cent 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

Method:

For the wonton filling, put all the ingredients, except the prawns, in a bowl and mix by hand for five minutes to thoroughly combine. Mix in the chopped prawns.

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 as possible. Press the edges together to seal. Dust the bottom with a tiny bit of cornflour to prevent them from sticking together.

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 reduce heat to medium. Add the wontons one at a time. 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 each cooked wonton and place in cold water for 10 seconds. Lift out and set aside.

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 the cooked wontons, dropping them gently into the soup. Ladle into bowls. Garnish each with chopped spring onions and a drop of sesame oil.

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