After the phenomenal success of the Crazy Rich Asian movie, in which Singaporean food culture featured prominently, interest in Singaporean food has grown. In Makan, UK-based chef Elizabeth Haigh shares the origins and details of her family’s Singaporean recipes. Haigh notes that few cookbooks of the foodways of Singapore exist, however this is somewhat less true in Singapore itself; with a little searching I found several modern cookbooks in English. As a moderately adventurous home cook I have several older books that also cover the area, such as Charmaine Solomon’s The Complete Asian Cookbook.
The advantage of Haigh’s book is that it’s a personal take on Singaporean cooking. After a traditional chef’s education (read: Western European), she competed on BBC 1’s MasterChef and earned a Michelin star; with these bona fides, she decided to follow her own preferences and revisit the flavors of her childhood.
As such, the book is aimed at someone in the UK (from the specific ingredient sources recommended), or possibly elsewhere with access to Asian grocery stores. A central ingredient in many of the dishes is belachan, fermented shrimp paste. I suspect I am in the minority of her target audience who has used it previously; much like her quoted experiences, although the resulting food was tasty, the other residents of the household asked it to be used sparingly to avoid embedding the scent in the home. She particularly cautions about the nasty consequences of a flatmate’s cat eating it! Unfortunately I don’t know if this will really get the ambitious home chef, unfamiliar with Singaporean food, to buy a jar to try the recipes.
Nonya cuisine, named for the “aunties” of the early Chinese migrants to the Straits, is an original fusion cuisine, with influence from Chinese, Malay, Indian, Thai, Indonesian, Dutch, Portuguese, and English cooking. After moving to the UK, Haigh’s mother adapted her immense catalog of recipes to ingredients readily available there, and Haigh further adapts techniques, sometimes for convenience (using a blender instead of a mortar and pestle to grind shallots and garlic into a paste), and sometimes to heighten flavor (with a chef’s particular insistence).
With a fairly well-stocked Chinese pantry I still found many intriguing recipes required a fair number of additional sauces, aromatics, and particular tofu or noodle types, which might be alluring to the dilettante but somewhat frustrating for someone hoping to add recipes to their regular rotation of family cooking, despite her frequent references to her son and suggestions to adapt for childrens’ tastes. These recipes also seem to be more the basis of home cooking rather than the vaunted “hawker fare” of which she writes movingly.
Hawkers in Singapore are facing a problem. The hawker centres are home to the best food stalls in the world. These Aunties and Uncles, usually hunched-over leathery-skinned geriatrics, each specialize in one dish and make and sell it until they can no longer hold the stall, then they retire. In addition to simply getting older, there’s the stress of constantly rising rents and increasing food prices. Once gone, their hawker knowledge, experience, and passion is lost. They work incredibly hard so their children can get a good education and a ‘proper job.’ The younger generation don’t want to do the graft for such low marginal gains. When I told Uncle at my local kopitiam (coffee shop) in Singapore that I had opened up my own kopitiam in London, he thought I was mad. ‘But you have a degree lah? Why bother? Go work in an office!’
One dish that she nicely titles to represent its fusion origins is the dessert Eurasian Mess, an “exotic variation” of the traditional Eton Mess, with pandan and coconut added to the usual strawberries and meringue.
I ended up trying out recipes that happened not to require shrimp paste, in part because I was loath to buy a full jar for just this trial (warned again by the household not to cook with it) and also because I found the friends I planned to serve them to, don’t like seafood. They were delighted with the food anyway, quite possibly due to everyone’s fatigue with the pandemic. For a lovely escape, the Clarendon-filtered photos of the impeccably-styled food and the possibility of new flavor profiles in Makan might be just the ticket.