Former MasterChef contestant’s book pulled amid plagiarism accusations

A cookbook by former MasterChef contestant and restaurant owner Elizabeth Haigh has been quietly pulled from circulation by its publisher after Haigh was accused of copying recipes by another author.

Haigh’s Makan, a collection of Singaporean recipes, was released by Bloomsbury in May, drawing together “recipes that have been handed down through many generations of her family”, according to the publisher. But after Sharon Wee, who published Growing Up in a Nonya Kitchen: Singapore Recipes from My Mother in 2012, said that Haigh’s title “copied or paraphrased” some of her content, it was quietly withdrawn from sale.

Wee said in a statement that she wrote her book, a mix of cookbook and memoir, “in loving memory of my mother”, recreating personalised recipes and researching her heritage. “I credit her and her peers for their anecdotes, recipes and cooking tips. This was their story,” she said. “I was therefore 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. I am grateful that Bloomsbury has responded to my concerns by withdrawing Makan from circulation.”

Haigh, who owns a restaurant, Mei Mei, in Borough Market, London, and competed in the BBC MasterChef competition in 2011, writes in Makan: “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). Technique aside, ingredients were hard to find, but thankfully I was just a bus ride away from Chinatown in central London.”

Nine years earlier, Wee wrote: “It faced its 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 daun (or herbs) and rempah (spice pastes). Recipe testing in New York could be challenging. Shopping for ingredients necessary for our cuisine often entailed trekking down to Chinatown by subway with a large shopping trolley.”

Haigh, who was born in Singapore and whose mother is Singaporean, writes: “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’.”

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.”

Observers also noted similarities between some recipes. “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’,” writes Haigh. Wee had previously written: “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’.”

Cookbook shops around the world criticised Haigh: in New Zealand, Cook the Books wrote on Facebook: “To pass someone else’s recipes off as your own is one thing. To appropriate their personal memoir is unforgivable.” Now Serving LA said it was “dumbfounded and disheartened” to discover that Haigh “used vital material” from Wee’s book. “Of course, ‘recipes can’t be copyrighted’ but Haigh did not stop at the 15 or more recipes that were lifted from Wee’s original text but also plagiarised Wee’s personal memories and head notes, sometimes verbatim,” the shop wrote on Instagram.

New editions of Makan were no longer available from online bookshops on Monday, and the title has been removed from Bloomsbury’s website.The publisher said in a statement: “This title has been withdrawn due to rights issues” and would not comment further.

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