Singaporean author Sharon Wee claims celebrity chef Elizabeth Haigh plagiarised her cookbook

PHOTO: Facebook/Bloomsbury absolute, Facebook/Growing up in a Nonya Kitchen

SINGAPORE - A London chef has had her cookbook pulled from circulation after claims that she plagiarised a Singaporean author, and others have since come forward with more allegations.

Singapore-born Elizabeth Haigh released her cookbook Makan in May this year. But her British publisher Bloomsbury Absolute has withdrawn it after Singaporean Sharon Wee pointed out several similarities to her book Growing Up In A Nonya Kitchen, which was published here in 2012 by Marshall Cavendish.

Makan can no longer be found in online bookstores here, though it is still available on Amazon.

Wee, 51, said in a statement on social media last Wednesday (Oct 6) that she was "distressed to discover that certain recipes and other content from my book had been copied or paraphrased without my consent in Makan".

She brought this immediately to the attention of Bloomsbury, she added. "I am grateful that Bloomsbury has responded to my concerns by withdrawing Makan from circulation."

Haigh, 33, was born in Singapore and raised in England. A formerMasterChef contestant, she co-founded restaurant Pidgin in Hackney, London, which was awarded a Michelin star when she was 27. After she left, she opened a Singaporean-style kopitiam, Mei Mei, in London's Borough Market in 2019.

She has been lauded by celebrity chefs like Nigella Lawson, who shared Haigh's ma po tofu recipe on her website, and appeared as "Auntie Liz" in videos by popular YouTuber Uncle Roger.

Both authors cite their mothers as inspiration. Haigh, whose mother is Singaporean, writes in a chapter titled Nonya Secrets: "The recipes in this chapter are the heart of this book. I had to drag them out of my mother and get them from her head down on to paper."

In a 2012 interview with The Straits Times, the New York-based Wee said she spent 10 years putting together her cookbook of 127 recipes as a tribute to her late mother. "I didn't realise her cooking was a legacy when I was younger. I took her for granted and did not ask her much about her cooking. Every family should celebrate how food ties them together."

In that interview, she described how she catalogued recipes, reconstructed them repeatedly and even smuggled ingredients - from belacan to kaffir lime - back to the United States because at the time, many of the herbs and ingredients in Nonya cooking were not readily available there.

Elizabeth Haigh (pictured) opened a Singaporean-style kopitiam, Mei Mei, in London's Borough Market in 2019. 
PHOTO: Facebook/Mei Mei, Instagram/Mei Mei in London

On her visits to Singapore, she learnt from relatives dishes such as satay babi - sliced pork stir-fried in a spicy coconut gravy - from her 90-year-old grandaunt on her father's side.

When ST contacted Wee for this article, she said she was not able to disclose further details beyond her statement for legal reasons.

Haigh has not responded to the allegations. Bloomsbury said in a statement, "This title has been withdrawn due to rights issues" and has not responded to further requests for comment.

Several passages and recipes in Makan bear resemblances to Wee's, from otak-otak to sweet potatoes in ginger syrup.

Haigh writes of "agak agak", the method of rough estimation while cooking: "By tradition, Nonya Aunties engaged all their senses when they cooked. It was really important to gauge the smells and colour of the gravy; feel the warmth of the charcoal or wok heat; listen to the sizzle of the rempah; and - the best bit - taste constantly. The Aunties cooked by agak agak, or 'guesstimation'. This meant that passed-down recipes were totally inexact and is why I've struggled so much with this project."

Wee writes: "Traditionally, the Nonyas engaged all their senses when they cooked - it was important to gauge the colour of the gravy, smell the aroma of the spices, feel the warmth of the charcoal heat, listen to the rhythm of the pounding and most importantly, taste the final product when the cooking is finished. As such, recipes passed down the generations were inexact. Cooking was by estimation or what the Nonyas called agak-agak."

Elizabeth Haigh, a former MasterChef contestant, was born in Singapore and raised in England.
PHOTO: Instagram/the_modernchef

Others have also raised allegations that Haigh plagiarised their work too.

Malaysian food blogger Low Bee Yinn said a commenter last week had accused her blog Rasa Malaysia of copying a ngoh hiang recipe from Makan, even though the recipe was contributed by a Singaporean food blogger called Danielle and posted in 2010.

Ms Low told ST that she had not read Makan before this and has not been able to contact Danielle, whose blog is now defunct. She has also e-mailed Bloomsbury with no response.

A comparison between the Rasa Malaysia and Makan recipes shows almost identical ingredient lists, as well as several similarities in the cooking instructions, such as the method for rolling the ngoh hiang.

Home-grown company Anthony The Spice Maker has also claimed that Haigh copied the packaging design and directions for use of two of their spice blends, Meat Rendang and Curry Powder Singapura, for Mei Mei's products.

Ms Leow Min Ling, daughter of spice-maker Anthony Leow, told ST that they had discovered this about a month ago while doing market research. "Under the products listing, we also found out that the directions on how to use the spices, how to blend, how to make into a fresh paste, the grammage are almost 80 per cent similar with just some minor changes."

She said they contacted Haigh, who responded but did not acknowledge any plagiarism. "We do not want any trouble and we tried to give her the benefit of the doubt," said Ms Leow, 27.

The spice blends in question are no longer available on Mei Mei's e-shop.

Award-winning Singaporean cookbook author Christopher Tan posted on Instagram three recipes from his father Terry Tan's Straits Chinese Cookbook (1981), adding in the caption: "If you have read Makan...he who has eyes, let him see."

The recipes include tauyu bak with tau pok (stewed pork with dried soybean cakes), the first step of which reads: "Heat oil. Lightly brown garlic, then add pork. When pork has been well sealed by hot oil, add soy sauce and stew for five mintues, stirring to prevent burning. Pork should be well coated with sauce."

Haigh's recipe for "tauk yu bak" braised pork belly begins: "Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pot and lightly brown the garlic and ginger. Add the chunks of pork and sear them on all sides. Add the soy sauce and stew for five minutes, stirring constantly to prevent burning or sticking. Ensure that the pork is well coated with soy sauce."

Singaporean writer Daryl Lim Wei Jie, 30, has been collating plagiarism claims against Makan on social media.

Lim, who co-edited local literary anthology Food Republic (2020), said he does not know either Wee or Haigh personally and learnt of the matter from Wee's Facebook post.

"I would have loved to cheer (Haigh) on as a proud Singaporean," he added. "But this revelation of alleged plagiarism - not just of recipes, but familial memories and anecdotes - is troubling.

"The way to put Singapore on the map is not through the appropriation of memories and hard work."

This article was first published in The Straits TimesPermission required for reproduction.