The worlds of London food and international cookbooks are rocking after far-reaching allegations of plagiarism by a highly regarded chef. Cookbook publisher Bloomsbury Absolute has withdrawn Makan, the debut cookbook by Mei Mei owner Elizabeth Haigh, after allegations of plagiarism from Sharon Wee, the author of Growing Up in a Nonya Kitchen, a cookbook memoir published by Marshall Cavendish in 2012.
Wee issued a statement on her Instagram on Thursday 7 October, saying that she had been “distressed to discover that certain recipes and other content from my book had been copied or paraphrased without my consent in Makan by Elizabeth Haigh, and I immediately brought this matter to the attention of the book’s publisher, Bloomsbury Absolute.” Wee’s book is set to be republished in November 2021.
Eater contacted Wee, Haigh, and Bloomsbury for comment. Wee told Eater that she cannot elaborate on her statement for legal reasons; a spokesperson for Haigh said they could not answer questions as it would reveal details of a legal settlement. Bloomsbury Absolute initially returned an out-of-office auto-reply, before pointing to a statement given to industry publication The Bookseller, which followed a report in the Daily Mail: “This title has been withdrawn due to rights issues.”
Makan was billed as something of a culmination of Haigh’s ascent, first being head chef at Hackney restaurant Pidgin when it earned a Michelin star, and then for her own interpretation of a Singaporean kopitiam at Mei Mei, in Borough Market, which earned a pair of glowing reviews for a cuisine underrepresented in the city and was one of Eater London’s most impressive newcomers of 2019. Now the lasting legacy of Makan will likely be the discussion it has stoked about the genealogy of recipes and the responsibilities and pressures of cultural representation in the cookbook world, which prizes memories and personal anecdotes as the premier currency of legitimacy.
Following initial allegations by Wee, New Zealand cookbook store Cook the Books received, and later excerpted on Instagram and Facebook, an email from a staff member at Marshall Cavendish. This prompted further attention from global cookbook stores, including Now Serving LA.
The email alleged: “The most blatant case of cookbook plagiarism we’ve ever seen … Elizabeth Haigh, in her 2021 book ‘Makan’ published by Bloomsbury Absolute, lifted 15 or more recipes from Sharon Wee’s book, ‘Growing up in a Nonya Kitchen,’ published by Marshall Cavendish International (Asia) in 2012.”
The email then presented examples from both books side-by-side:
“My mother, like many of her friends, placed their most frequently used condiments and ingredients within easy access while they cooked. That often meant a plastic tray . . . where there were small bottles of soy sauces, sesame oil, and jars of minced garlic, salt and sugar. In the past there would also have been a metal container to hold recycled cooking oil.”
“My mother . . . kept her most frequently used condiments and ingredients within easy reach of where she cooked. That often meant a plastic tray full of little jars of oils, crispy-fried shallots or garlic, crushed garlic, salt and sugar. There was also usually an old metal pot for recycled or discarded frying oil.”
Wee (on transcribing her mother’s recipes):
“It faced many challenges along the way. It first started with converting her handwritten recipe measurements from katis and tahils (old Chinese measurements) and learning the different daum (or herbs) and rempah (spice pastes).”
“It faced many challenges along the way. It first started with converting her handwritten recipe measurements . . . and learning the different daun (or herbs) and rempah (spice pastes).”
“Ginger is thought to ‘pukol angin’ (beat the toxic gases and dampness out of you to relieve aches and pains). Hence, post-natal mothers were given lots of ginger to ‘beat the wind.’ In my case, a backache, especially in the winter, was often remedied with a knob of ginger, with the sliced surface dipped in brandy. The brandied ginger was used to rub my back and it left red streak marks, indicating the wind in my flesh and bones. It always worked.
The ginger flavour is strongest just beneath its skin. Therefore, leave the skin on to get the most of the flavour.”
“Ginger is thought to have healing properties – pukol angin (to beat the toxic gases and dampness out of you to relieve aches and pains). This is why postnatal mothers were given lots of ginger to ‘beat the wind’ . . . The strongest ginger is just beneath the skin, so to get the most flavour out of it don’t peel it.”
Further allegations followed, suggesting that recipes had been lifted from more than one source. Singaporean poet and critic Daryl Lim shared two Instagram posts detailing similarities between Makan and other recipes, from blogs and other cookbooks, as well as between Haigh’s book and Sharon Wee’s.
In the comments of Cook the Books’ Facebook post, Bee Yinn Low, a recipe writer behind the Rasa Malaysia blog, said that she “received a comment from someone who accused me of copying Elizabeth Haigh’s cookbook word-by-word without credit.” It reads: “this is the exact same recipe from Elizabeth Haigh’s makan cookbook, even the steps are the same. credits?”
On Monday 11 October, a Singaporean spice business, Anthony the Spicemaker, posted Instagram Stories including side-by-side comparisons of recipe text for Haigh’s Mei Mei and Anthony the Spicemaker’s Singaporean curry powder and meat rendang spice mixes.
Later on the 11 October, Christopher Tan, a Peranakan chef and author, and son of renowned cookbook author Terry Tan, posted excerpts from his father’s book, Straits Chinese Cookbook, whose hokkien mee recipe shares exact measurements with its contemporary in Makan.
Two more sources also told Eater that they brought similarities between another passage in the book, and an excerpt from 2018’s You and I Eat the Same, edited by Chris Ying, to Bloomsbury’s attention in July, but did not receive a reply.
Ying’s introduction reads:
“Cuisine cannot exist without the free and fair movement of ingredients, ideas, and people. Deliciousness is an undeniable benefit of migration. When people move around, food gets better.”
A passage from Haigh’s Makan reads:
“Cuisine cannot exist without the fair and free movement of ingredients, ideas, and people. Deliciousness is an undeniable benefit of migration and that’s exactly what my family has achieved. When people move and mix together, food gets better.”
Bloomsbury has yet to address further allegations of plagiarism.
Haigh’s book was not just an affirmation of her place as a London chef, but as a British-Singaporean giving renown and limelight to diasporic Singaporean cooking. Several East and South East Asian (ESEA) food writers, cookbook authors, and recipe developers have reacted similarly to the allegations: with a sense of betrayal. Some had supported Haigh — by eating at her restaurant, or buying her book — and showing solidarity in an industry that does not have a strong record of platforming and dubbing ESEA writers and chefs as expert. Others had been pleased to see a style and tradition of cooking not normally represented in the U.K. mainstream cookbook publishing arena — or in food media — get its due.
May Noo, a Burmese cook and entrepreneur who runs Rice Over Everything, told Eater that “I for one haven’t been to Singapore for so long and always loved visiting and loving Singaporean food. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the book and I got it as soon as it came out. Knowing it’s someone else’s hard work and experience just breaks my heart.”
Cookbook authors, meanwhile, see the silence on the part of Bloomsbury — beyond its one-line statement — as leaving space to doubt the editorial process for other books on the publisher’s roster. “This kind of silence implicates a wider net of people than it needs to, and it will have repercussions,” one Bloomsbury author who spoke to Eater on background said. “It casts doubt on the ethics and editorial processes of Bloomsbury, and the veracity of other titles they have published, and it therefore also damages the integrity and credibility of the rest of their authors.” By not speaking on its part in the processes that led to the plagiarism allegations, it is contributing to the situation remaining in the realm of the personal, instead of in that of the norms and biases baked into the cookbook industry as a whole which contribute to, but do not fully explain, this story. With both Haigh and Bloomsbury silent for legal reasons, that is unlikely to change.
In that vacuum of silence following Sharon Wee’s statement, comments appeared tying Haigh’s alleged actions to the tendencies of “white western food writers,” in pillaging both ideas and actual content from lesser-known cookbook authors of colour. This conclusion attempts to account for the harm done to Wee by leaning on a very real problem in the cookbook world — recipe theft by cooks with higher status — to which copyright laws are not a solution. Haigh is a prominent London chef, who appeared on Masterchef and was part of a Michelin-starred restaurant. And Wee, someone most reading this story only know from one Instagram post, is having her recipes and attendant stories taken from her. But Haigh’s mother, from whose notebooks and recipes she researched for Makan, is Chinese-Singaporean; Haigh has Singaporean heritage. She is not a “white, western food writer.” And Wee — who moved between Singapore and New York City when researching and writing her book — credits her living in New York, and exploring its museums, for “a heightened awareness of my heritage and a quest to find out more” about Peranakan culture.
Haigh and Wee alike are enmeshed in a cookbook industry that — particularly when publishing books that aren’t in Eurocentric culinary traditions — frequently reduces people’s credentials to lived experiences. It uses these credentials to turn cookbook authors and chefs into monolithic avatars for representation, even if the avatar goes beyond their knowledge of a given cuisine, tradition, or place. It, as in the restaurant industry, limits these avatars to one or two per cuisine, creating scarcity, and then judges their continued suitability for role on either the purported authenticity of their stories, or, worse, what they look like. This artificially maintained scarcity becomes a contributing factor in feelings of betrayal or disappointment if their actions let people down.
Citation is not encouraged, if not unheard of. And in the U.K. and U.S. cookbook industries as they exist today, being suitable means trafficking in “authentic” memories and stories that are asked to tie the personal to sweeping generalisations around culinary traditions and sociocultural histories. Haigh’s book is still billed on her website as follows:
“[Makan] … draws together recipes that have been handed down through many generations of her family, from Nonya to Nonya, creating a time capsule of a cuisine.”
How can a single book, from a single family, expect, and be expected, to create an entire “time capsule of a cuisine?”
In one passage from Growing Up in a Nonya Kitchen, set next to Makan by Daryl Lim, Wee recounts the meaning of “agak agak,” cooking not just by the five senses but deliberate in its inexactitude, such that while a recipe might be repeatable, the signs, sounds, and smells that would communicate its being so could vary from cook to cook and day to day. Haigh’s book has its own passage on this subject, which like many others, is strikingly similar to Wee’s.
“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.”
“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 . . . and – the best bit – taste constantly. The Aunties cooked by agak agak, or “guesstimation.’ This meant that passed down recipes were totally inexact . . . ”
The obvious conclusion here, as before, is that Haigh simply stole this writing and recollection from Wee, with the plagiarised text standing in as the currency of lived experience. But agak agak runs counter-intuitive to contemporary Western understandings of what recipes look like: transmitting the sensory art of understanding inexactitude in a measured recipe is futile, if not impossible. This, like the theft of recipes, or the complicity of publishers in that theft not being deemed a crime, is another real problem in the cookbook world as it exists today. It is caused in part by a heavily prescriptivist bent in cookbook publishing which is beginning to circle back towards a more inclusive understanding of “no-recipe” cooking, but still expects cookbook authors to adhere to formats that may not fit the cuisine they are cooking from, particularly, again, when those cuisines are not European.
Mainstream cookbook publishers often resolve this dissonance by introducing these personal anecdotes or authenticity appeals to recipes “handed down through generations,” which might note a historic quirk of measurement or the way in which a relative would gauge doneness. These stories then stand in for the complicated thinking, or acknowledgement of how ingredients or methods might change across time, space, and diasporas; even whether or not people still use them. All that gets excised from the cleanliness of a weighted list of ingredients set apart from the more complicated story in its headnote or introduction. It is rare that the two are allowed to co-exist or complicate each other.
This is another indication of how memories and stories attached to recipes have become the currency of representation in the cookbook world; another consequence of lived experience being seen as the ultimate form of credibility. It can’t explain plagiarism, but it can explain the limitations and pressures imposed on writers by publishers that purportedly just want them to tell their story. So until the cookbook world takes a new approach to not just citation, but to the way it forces writers to become spokespeople for cultures they cannot nor should be expected to understand in their totality, it will only be the scale of incidents like these, rather than that they exist at all, that will shock.