MOB Meets… Elizabeth Haigh
First introduced to the world of professional kitchens through her successful stint on MasterChef in 2011, Elizabeth Haigh has turned a lifelong passion for food – and an upbringing spent around the smells of her’s mother cooking – into an impressive career and burgeoning culinary empire. Elizabeth helped earned Hackney cult restaurant Pidgin a Michelin star in its first year and, as the owner of Borough Market’s Mei Mei, she continues to feed Londoners with food that’s packed with comfort and flavour.
Born in Singapore and raised in Maidenhead, Elizabeth has always managed to tie her culture into the delicious plates she’s created over the years. The good news is that, with the release of her new cookbook Makan: Recipes from the Heart of Singapore, you’ve now got a chance to try out some of Elizabeth’s family recipes in your own home, too. We can't promise you'll be as good as Haigh, but you can sure as hell give it a go.
Makan, meaning 'to eat' or 'dinner time' in Malay, is a cookbook that's a celebration of Singapore’s diverse food culture. Elizabeth has drawn together recipes that have been handed down through many generations of her family and combined them with her own experience working at some of the UK’s top restaurants to create a cookbook full of individual recipes that underline what Singaporean food culture is all about. Which is a lot.
Whether it’s a fiery laksa, a gorgeous bowl of chilli crab fried tofu with spicy peanut sauce, or a miso apple pie that puts the logs of molten sugar that McDonald’s flogs to shame, Makan is stuffed with simple and delicious recipes that cooks of all levels can try out in the kitchen. We were lucky enough to sit down with Elizabeth before the release of her cookbook and find out a little more about what makes Singaporean cuisine so special.
When did you first realise you wanted to be a chef?
It sounds pretty corny but it was probably when I did MasterChef in 2012. At the time, I had no idea there was such a wide range of careers in food. Then I found out there was food styling or food photography or food writing. The first thing that I was attracted to was the writing but then I quickly realised I wanted to be a chef because I loved being around everyone who was as passionate about food as I was. I immediately felt it would be a great career fit for me, even though I'd originally trained as an architect in London. I guess it’s actually a similar discipline to architecture in that it involves being creative and hands-on. But it’s also very different in a lot of ways, too. When it came to cooking, I just got stuck in right at the bottom end of the hierarchy as a commis chef and – even if I was spending hours and hours in the kitchen with, like, a big burly guy shouting at me – I still enjoyed it. As soon as you get hooked on that adrenaline, you're kind of stuck with it and now I'm really enjoying becoming a boss and a restaurateur and seeing all the different sides of the business.
How long have you wanted to write a cookbook for?
We're all quite dyslexic in my family, so I never really thought of it as something I would pursue but I did have this scrapbook that I've been writing since I was maybe, what, 11 years old? I was always really interested in food and being around my mum and I will never forget the day that I made a scrapbook out of her collection of Woman's Weekly magazines and she just lost it at me! That was basically the equivalent of cutting up her vinyl records, y'know? I made this little scrapbook of all the recipes that I liked and I categorised them into a cookbook of my own. And then, as I became a chef I wrote a lot of recipes for the stuff that my mum would make growing up or stuff that I was interested in. I never really thought I'd ever get a cookbook published but I did see that there was a gap for more cookbooks on Singaporean and Malaysian food. I still can't believe that it's going to be published. It's almost like a dream come true because I’ve always pestered my mum about writing down her recipes. I will never forget that one time I asked my mum how she makes her crispy roast pork dish – it’s one that’s really crispy on the top and moist underneath – and she just goes, "Oh, that? Yeah, you just prick it with a fork, put it in the oven and let it cook". And I was, like, yeah I think there's more to it than that!
Family is obviously something that’s very important to you. How did you convince them to part with the recipes for Makan?
Recipes are kind of like our family heirlooms, y'know? We don't come from a lot and that wealth of knowledge and experience of the dishes are the equivalent of precious family heirlooms. You’ll get aunties, or “Nonyas" as we call them – and, honest to God, some of these aunties will go to the grave with their recipes. That's common across the whole world, right? I was basically prying the recipes for Makan out of my mum because I really just wanted to share them with everyone. It’s about preserving all those recipes as well. There's a gap for Singaporean and Malaysian books in the market and without that wealth of knowledge being passed down from the elders, it would just kind of get lost in translation. And also get misinterpreted. I guess in a selfish way, I just wanted a family cookbook. That's essentially what Makan is – it's a book that's a love letter to my family and about the thing that we love the most, which is dinner time.
How would you describe the food of Singapore to someone who’s never been?
It’s difficult because a lot of people don't know what Singaporean food is. I've tried to make it absolutely clear at Mei Mei but we still get a lot of people that come in and say, "oh, this is Malaysian or Japanese or Chinese" or they'll come up to us and ask if we've got Pad Thai. I've got to tell them no because there's a whole distinct range of food in Singapore. Singapore is like a mecca and it's very similar to London in the sense that it's so multicultural and so diverse that it's enriched with all that community and knowledge and sharing of dishes from one culture to another. In Singapore, there are so many different regions that it’s like going on a trip around the world. You can get something from Little India or Chinatown but you can also have Portuguese or British food. It's similar to how the food culture here in England is so hard to explain. How can you define what British food even is? There's no definition for it. That's what I wanted to share with people: to make some of these lesser-known dishes a bit more well-known and prove that it’s not complex it's not hard to cook. I've had a lot of people claim it’s difficult or inaccessible because it’s got things like crab and ox cheek and bone marrow and, well, for me: those ingredients aren’t uncommon. In England, you can find those in the supermarket. You just need to give people the confidence to cook with them. Seeing those ingredients in a book like Makan will hopefully help show people these ingredients are actually common and you can cook with them.
Have you got a favourite recipe from the cookbook?
I think the Singapore Laksa is my favourite. But I’m also biased because it's my favourite picture in the book as well – it's the one with my mum in it and it just sort of summarises Makan for me. It’s one of the first dishes that she taught me and it just embodies a lot of what Singapore is about. It's spicy and it's fiery but it's also sweet and sour. Everybody kind of knows what a laksa is but this is, like, a traditional laksa down to the tee. It's basically my mum’s exact recipe and her version of a laksa. I'm just really excited for everyone to try it.
What’s the one dish that everyone should be able to cook?
I’d say probably egg fried rice or just cooking rice, full stop. It astonishes me how many people don't know how to make rice. For me, it's second nature and since I can remember we've always used a rice cooker or had a rice cooker in the house. It's like the equivalent of having a saucepan or a microwave. I was shocked that so many people didn't know what one was or where to get one. Being able to cook rice is essential because, for me, rice is life. Mei Mei, as a business, is based on rice dishes. I think if you’re able to nail down rice then you can do so much with it. Even if you’re just stir-frying beef or vegetables and having them with rice and then that's a really good, healthy balanced meal.
What’s your favourite song to listen to while you’re cooking?
'Shortline' by Howling. Ry X is one of my favourite singers and it's a really nice tune to have in the background.