In Singapore it’s common to greet each other with “Are you hungry?” or, “Shall we go get some food?” rather than “Hello, how are you?”. This is because we live by our stomachs and are very proud of it, too. 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”. Southeast Asian cuisine is a proud mix of migrants and influences from all across Asia – and from afar – which fuses together to create something even greater than the original.
I was born in Singapore to a Singaporean mother and English father, but growing up in England my sisters and I were fascinated by all the types of food that we had access to. Mum studied for City & Guilds qualifications for wedding cakes and incredibly impressive sugar work. I used to be very naughty and would secretly eat her sugar flowers, which had taken her weeks to make. My sister Jane, being the youngest, always somehow managed to cover herself in flour. So, we were pretty much kept out of the kitchen. It was my mother’s domain, and we would be scolded endlessly if we moved or touched anything without her knowing.
When my sisters and I went off to university we felt a huge displacement without our home-cooked food. That’s when I started to take cooking seriously and my passion for it grew: it was my only connection to home. I felt frustrated that I had taken my mother’s cooking for granted and refused to settle for beans on toast for dinner while I was studying (although I do have a soft spot for beans on toast). I constantly bombarded my mum with emails, messages and calls, asking for step-by-step instructions on how to make my favourite dishes that would comfort me when I was feeling overwhelmed.
When she did share her recipes with me, her instructions were rather difficult to follow and I faced many challenges along the way. It began with my having to translate hard-to-read handwritten notes, or convert measurements, and moved on to learning about the different daun (herbs) or rempahs (spice pastes). The more I learned, the more I felt connected back to my heritage. I spent four hard years studying for a diploma in classical cookery, and now have my own restaurant, Mei Mei, in London’s Borough Market, which serves the Nonya food I grew up with. Nonya literally means “aunty”, and is named after the women who pass recipes down orally through generations.
This project has been about collecting, adapting and understanding these recipes because I didn’t want them to be lost. I had my first son, Riley, in 2017, and it’s crucial to me that he and my husband, Steele, learn about our heritage. Food felt like a wonderful way to do this.
Despite us having the difficulties of feeding a toddler, Riley adores the rice dishes and I’ve adapted some of these recipes to make them baby-friendly. I just omit the salt, sugar and chilli, and add them in later for myself. Some of these recipes are a fusion of traditional Nonya cooking and my experience as a chef in London, or what I love to cook at home with my family.
Makan: Recipes from the Heart of Singapore by Elizabeth Haigh (Bloomsbury Absolute, £26) is out on May 13 and available to order from books.telegraph.co.uk.
I take after my mother so I always make enough chicken stock to make multiple meals, enough to feed an army. This recipe is easy to put together and really combines the essence of Nonya cuisine with its aromatic, spicy and herbal notes.