Book review: Makan: Recipes from the Heart of Singapore, by Elizabeth Haigh

13 May 2021 by
Book review: Makan: Recipes from the Heart of Singapore, by Elizabeth Haigh

After winning a Michelin star at Pidgin aged just 27, for her next venture Elizabeth Haigh looked to bring the energy of Singapore's kopitiams to London, resulting in Mei Mei in Borough. Her south-east Asian heritage is also the inspiration behind her first book, Makan, its name meaning ‘to eat' or ‘dinner time' in Malay.

Haigh explains that "Singapore is a mecca for all sorts of cuisines. It's impossible to pinpoint where dishes have come from, so when people ask me what food is Singaporean, I simply reply: ‘the delicious type'."

Haigh outlines the principles of Nonya cooking – named after the Peranakan word for auntie – explaining it is more sensual than measurement-driven, relying on ‘agak agak' (‘guesstimation'). She does not aspire to authenticity, however, claiming her recipes are "a fusion of traditional Nonya cooking and my experience as a chef in London".

As such, ingredients and recipes are adapted for the UK market, with a list of stockists provided at the back of the book. A sweet and sour pork recipe, which features HP and Worcestershire sauces, "sums up British-Chinese food culture", while char kway teow can either be cooked simply in a wok for an easy midweek meal, or with blood cockles over charcoal "like the Singapore hawkers do".

Chapters are divided by occasion, from ‘daily fare' and ‘super quick meals' to ‘Sunday gatherings' and ‘celebration meals'. A section entitled ‘Nonya secrets' features recipes passed down from Haigh's mother and typifies the philosophies of this cuisine. A sardine curry, for example, exemplifies the principle of ‘agak agak', with Haigh encouraging the reader to adapt the spice levels and choice of vegetables according to personal taste.

This book offers much more than recipes, from family photographs and stories to insights on Singaporean culture. While Haigh describes it as "a home cookbook to be used and bruised in the kitchen", the Nonya principles could be of use to any professional chef looking to break out of the rigid confines of classical cuisine.

Makan: Recipes from the Heart of Singapore by Elizabeth Haigh (Bloomsbury Absolute, £26)

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