October 28, 2021
Former MasterChef contestant’s book withdrawn after plagiarism allegations
by Nikki Griffiths
Elizabeth Haigh is a London based chef who competed on MasterChef UK in 2011, and was the head chef at Hackney-based restaurant Pidgin when it earned a Michelin Star. Now owner of the popular restaurant Mei Mei in Borough Market, her star has been on the rise, with her cookbook Makan: Recipes from the Heart of Singapore coming out with Bloomsbury last May. It has been described by the publishers as “a love letter to family cooking and traditions,” drawing together recipes handed down through generations of Haigh’s family, from Nonya to Nonya.
However, Haigh has recently been accused of plagiarism by Singaporean author Sharon Wee, including lifting 15 recipes and reminiscences from her own work. Wee published her book Growing Up in a Nonya Kitchen with Singaporean Publishers Marshall Cavendish in 2012. She released a statement claiming that Haigh had “copied or paraphrased without my consent” content from her book, which was deeply personal. As a result, Bloomsbury have taken the situation seriously, and stopped publishing Haigh’s book.
Various passages have been highlighted online to reveal the striking similarities between the two books, including the following:
“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. “
Further authors have now come forward, suggesting Haigh’s book has stolen from multiple sources. As Eater London details, Singaporean poet and critic Daryl Lim compares Haigh’s recipes to those from other cookbooks, and blogs; spice blender and retailer Anthony the Spicemaker, pointed out the similarities between one of their own recipes to one of Haigh’s; and chef and author Christopher Tan shared excerpts from his father’s book, Straits Chinese Cookbook, which shares undeniable similarities with Makan.
Eater London was also told of a remarkable similarity in a passage contained within the 2018 book You and I Eat the Same edited by Chris Ying and published by Artisan:
“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.”
“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.”
While Makan has been withdrawn by Bloomsbury and is no longer promoted on their website, it is still available to buy through Waterstones, Foyles, and Amazon. A spokesperson for Waterstones told the BBC: “We are in discussion with the publisher about the situation.” Meanwhile, Wee’s popularity is growing and her book is getting reprinted and republished on 15th December.
Both Haigh and Bloomsbury have publicly remained silent on the matter to date. It is unclear whether a ghostwriter was involved in the writing of Makan. This would not excuse the plagiarism but adds an extra complexity to the situation.
But how deep does this problem run? James Hansen, from Eater London, points out that plagiarism and cultural appropriation plagues the cookbook industry. He goes on to discuss a wider problem of expectations from publisher for cookbook authors to remain ‘authentic’ and stand as beacons of ‘representation’ for their culture. Citation within UK and US cookbooks is therefore not always prioritised as it might dilute the personal connection being sold. He writes:
“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 telltheirstory. 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.”
Haigh’s example is a specific, and seemingly damning example of plagiarism at work, but it is not a unique occurrence and one that results within in a pressurised environment which often seems to value uniqueness at all costs.
Nikki Griffiths is the managing director of Melville House UK.