From sambal to dried shrimp, award-winning London-based chef Elizabeth Haigh – founder of cult London restaurant Mei Mei – knows her way around Singaporean cuisine. Below, she shares three recipes from her debut cookbook, Makan.
Born in Singapore to an English father and Singaporean mother, chef Elizabeth Haigh was raised in Kent on a predominantly Asian diet. But it wasn’t until she went to university in London that she began bombarding her mum with requests about how to make her favourite Singaporean dishes.
“The more I learned and experimented with the food, the more I felt connected back to my heritage,” Haigh writes in the introduction to her debut cookbook Makan: Recipes From The Heart Of Singapore, which is published by Bloomsbury on 13 May.
Haigh subsequently trained in classical French cookery, and by the age of 27 she was head chef at Pidgin in Hackney, north London – a modern European restaurant that was awarded a Michelin star under her stewardship. In a surprise move, she left Pidgin not long after her Michelin triumph.
“I was sure that it was my time to move on,” Haigh told Stylist in 2018. “I had new things that I wanted to accomplish, and I was really excited to work on those ideas.”
Those new things included opening the critically acclaimed Mei Mei, a restaurant in Borough Market inspired by Singapore’s kopitiams (all-day coffee shops).
Now, with the release of Makan, Haigh is continuing her mission to spread the gospel of Singaporean cuisine.
“In Singapore it’s very common to greet each other with ‘Are you hungry?’ or ‘Shall we go get some food?’ rather than ‘Hello, how are you?’” Haigh explains. “This is because we live by our stomachs and are very proud of it.”
Peranakan cuisine, which originated with early Chinese migrants to Singapore, is also known as Nonya (“Auntie”) cuisine – and at its heart, Makan is a collection of recipes passed down by generations of Haigh’s female ancestors.
She is proud to describe these recipes as both authentic and inauthentic, explaining that they’ve been shaped by the “movement of ingredients, ideas and people”. This flexible philosophy reflects Singaporean cuisine as a whole, which has been influenced by centuries of migration from countries including Thailand, India and Portugal.
For a main course, try Haigh’s asam ikan pedas, a hot and sour Singaporean fish curry. And for a sprightly side, go for the spicy green beans with chilli and garlic.
“This project has been about collecting, adapting and understanding these recipes because I didn’t want them to be lost,” says Haigh. “It’s been an exciting journey, but essentially this is a home cookbook, to be used and bruised in the kitchen – recipes for you to master and to pass down the generations to enjoy.”
Asparagus with wok-fried egg, coconut and sambal
Elizabeth says: “When I was approached for the role of head chef at Pidgin, the test for me was to cook something that was different and seasonal (it was April at the time so plenty of asparagus around). Also, as it was 10am, the dish needed to be ‘brunch’ style.
“Since I’ve always got a jar of sambal in my pantry, this recipe was a perfect fit.”
- 500g asparagus
- 4 tbsp cooking oil
- 4 free-range eggs
- sea salt and white pepper
- 2 tsp sambal tumis belachan (see recipe below)
- 2 tbsp coconut cream powder
Trim the woody ends from the asparagus. Thinly peel the stalks from just below the tip down.
Add the spears to a pan of salted boiling water and blanch for 1 minute (if your asparagus spears are thick, then 2 minutes at most).
Using a slotted spoon, lift the asparagus out of the boiling water and into an ice-bath to stop it cooking. (Alternatively you can cool the asparagus under cold running water.)
Once cooled, place the spears on a tray and pat dry. Season with a pinch of sea salt and set aside.
Heat up some of the cooking oil in a wok over a high heat (you want enough oil in the wok to almost shallow-fry the eggs). Cook the eggs one at a time: crack one egg into a ramekin or small bowl, then slip gently into the hot oil, which should immediately start to bubble around the egg.
Season the yolk with salt and pepper, then use a Chinese spatula to carefully flick hot oil over the egg to cook the white.
When you no longer see any translucent egg white, carefully transfer the egg to a tray lined with kitchen paper or absorbent cloth.
Continue to shallow-fry the remaining eggs. If you run low on oil, just top it up and wait for it to heat up.
Serve the hot eggs with the asparagus, ½ teaspoon of sambal per serving and a dusting of the coconut cream powder across the top.
Sambal tumis belachan
Elizabeth says: “The best way to toast belachan is to break it up into a wok and dry-fry until really crumbly and toasted. This will produce a lot of aroma, so unless you want to have your home smelling of fermented fish, I’d recommend turning on the extractor fan to full blast and/or open as many windows as possible.
“This recipe makes a large amount, but the sambal keeps well in the fridge and I think it gets better over time. I use it on the side of a lot of my dishes.”
- 8 candlenuts or macadamia nuts
- 2 lemongrass stalks
- 30 large, dried red chillies, soaked in warm water and drained
- 5 fresh, medium-hot, red Dutch chillies, roughly chopped
- 400g banana shallots, peeled and roughly chopped
- 5 garlic cloves, peeled
- a 2.5cm cube of belachan (fermented shrimp paste), toasted (see above)
- 125ml cooking oil
- 3 tbsp (about 45g) tamarind pulp, soaked in 3 tbsp hot water
- 60g palm sugar, grated
Grind the candlenuts, lemongrass, chillies, shallots, garlic and belachan together in a blender (adding the ingredients in the order listed) to make a paste (rempah), adding a splash of extra water if needed to help it blend together.
Heat the oil in a wok or large saucepan on a medium-low heat and fry the rempah for 10 minutes, stirring frequently.
Meanwhile, press the tamarind mixture through a sieve to remove any seeds.
Add the sieved tamarind pulp to the rempah and continue to cook, stirring constantly, for at least 30 minutes up to 1 hour or until the oil separates. Add more oil if the mixture gets too dry.
Stir in the palm sugar until it melts completely and is fully incorporated. Set aside to cool, then store in an airtight container in a dry, cool place.
“Asam ikan pedas” fish curry
Elizabeth says: “This is a classic Nonya dish, traditionally made with fish steaks. It has lots of gravy with hot and sour notes, so you need a fish that can stand up to this. In Singapore we would ask our local wet market man to cut a couple of steaks from a large Spanish mackerel, but there is an array of other amazing fish that you could use. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a white or oily fish, as long as it can hold its shape.
“For white fish, go for hake (not cod as it is too flaky) or use whole sea bream, slashed twice on each side to allow the juices to penetrate. Whole mackerel (UK sized) or salmon steaks work well too.
“Torch ginger flower is a common ingredient in Nonya cuisine because it gives dishes a distinctive sour flavour. The leaf can be used in the same way as turmeric leaf. The fruit is also edible. Inside the individual pods that make up the fruit are pulp-coated seeds – like passion fruit pulp – which explode in the mouth. It’s very difficult to find torch ginger in the UK, so I recommend replacing it with laksa leaves.”
- 4 tbsp cooking oil
- 3 aubergines, cut into 2cm chunks
- 5 sprigs of laksa leaves (or torch ginger flower buds)
- 4 kaffir lime leaves
- 1 quantity tamarind juice (see recipe below)
- 8 okra, cut into bite-sized pieces
- 1 medium-sized tomato, cut into bite-sized pieces
- caster sugar, to taste
- a 1.2–1.5kg sea bream or mackerel
For the rempah:
- 2 candlenuts or macadamia nuts
- a 3cm piece of fresh galangal, peeled
- 2 lemongrass stalks, tough outer leaves removed and stalks roughly chopped
- 4 banana shallots, peeled and roughly chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled
- 20 dried, medium-hot red chillies
- 10g belachan (fermented shrimp paste)
Grind all the rempah ingredients together in a blender (adding them in the order listed) to make a paste. If the paste becomes too thick, add a little water. Set aside.
Heat the oil in a wok over a medium heat then quickly fry the aubergine until golden brown all over. Remove the aubergine pieces with a slotted spoon and set aside on a plate covered in kitchen paper.
Keeping the pan on the heat, next sauté the rempah in the oil, stirring constantly, until a richly coloured oil starts to seep from it – about 10 minutes.
Add the laksa and lime leaves, and continue to sauté for about 30 seconds or until fragrant.
Add the tamarind juice and bring to the boil. Add the fried aubergines, okra and tomato. Add sugar and salt to taste.
Lay the fish in the sauce and simmer for 10 minutes or until the fish is cooked.
Remove the laksa stalks, pull off the leaves and tear the leaves roughly into pieces. Sprinkle on to the gravy. Serve with steamed white rice.
Elizabeth says: “We use tamarind a lot in our cooking to get those sweet and sour notes. You can buy tamarind juice, or concentrate, but there’s nothing like squeezing and pressing your own juice from the seeds for maximum freshness.”
Makes about 500ml
- 3 tbsp (45g) tamarind pulp
- 500ml freshly boiled water
Add the tamarind pulp to the boiled water and leave to steep for 10 minutes.
Strain the juice into a bowl, using the back of a spoon or ladle to press the juice through the sieve. Don’t forget to scrape the underside of the sieve to remove any sieved paste there and add it to the bowl.
The tamarind juice will keep in the fridge for 5 days.
For 625ml juice use 100g tamarind pulp and 625ml water.
Spicy green beans with chilli and garlic
Elizabeth says: “The traditional Nonya recipe for this dish calls for kangkong or water spinach. As here in England we do not usually have access to good-quality fresh Asian vegetables, I substitute French/green beans.
“Although I am fond of kangkong, I think this dish is actually better made with the beans because of their crunchy texture. It is also more affordable. If you want to make this vegetarian/vegan just omit the dried shrimps, belachan and pork floss.”
Serves 2 as a side dish
- 1 tbsp dried shrimps
- 6 dried red chillies
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled
- 2 banana shallots, peeled
- 2 tbsp cooking oil
- 2 tsp belachan (fermented shrimp paste)
- 250g green beans, trimmed and cut into 1.5cm pieces
- 2 tbsp water
- 2 tbsp pork floss (rousong), optional
Soak the dried shrimps and chillies in warm water for at least 10 minutes or up to 1 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 4–5 minutes or until the beans are tender (no more than 7 minutes in total).
Serve immediately with pork floss sprinkled on top, if using.
Makan: Recipes From The Heart Of Singapore by Elizabeth Haigh (£26, Bloomsbury) is out 13 May. Pre-order here
Photography: Kris Kirkham
Moya is Contributing Women’s Editor at stylist.co.uk and Deputy Editor of Stylist Loves, Stylist's daily email newsletter.