This week, Bloomsbury withdrew the book from circulation, according to another author, who claimed that Haigh had “copied or paraphrased” recipes and other passages from her own 2012 family memoir. Sharon Wee, author of “Growing Up in a Nonya Kitchen,” posted a statement on social media saying that she had been “distressed” to see content in “Makan” that had been lifted from her book, in which she had re-created “my mother’s personalized recipes, interviewed older relatives, researched my Nonya heritage, and recounted my family history.”
She said she alerted the publisher of the alleged plagiarism and was “grateful” that Bloomsbury took action.
“This title has been withdrawn due to rights issues,” a spokeswoman for the publisher wrote in an email in response to a request for comment, but she did not respond to requests to elaborate on the book’s editing or vetting process. Attempts to reach Haigh were not immediately successful.
Wee said in an email that she would have no further comment. “For legal reasons, I cannot disclose details beyond my statement,” she wrote.
Haigh was considered a rising culinary star, known for incorporating her Singaporean British heritage into the ever-changing menus at her East London restaurant, Pidgin. She had been a contestant on the British TV cooking-competition show “MasterChef” and appeared on BBC’s “Saturday Morning Kitchen.”
In “Makan,” Haigh wrote that she wanted to preserve the recipes and techniques used by her Singaporean mother, whose cooking she ate growing up in the United Kingdom. (Her father is English.) “This project has been about collecting, adapting and understanding these recipes because I didn’t want them to be lost,” she wrote. She acknowledged that many of the dishes might not be considered strictly “authentic,” since they incorporated ingredients available to her family in the U.K. and her own family’s tastes. “They are authentic to me because they are my history, my journey and the refection of my family as it has grown and developed over the years.”
Wee expressed a similar motivation in her 2012 book, describing it as a project that started from her desire to collect and share her mother’s favorite recipes with her nieces in a bound notebook and that ultimately grew into a much more ambitious undertaking.
There were earlier signs of possible trouble with “Makan.” After the publisher shared a digital copy with a Washington Post reporter in June, the reporter contacted a representative for the publisher, expressing an interest in speaking to Haigh to address questions about a recipe and to potentially reprint an adaptation of the published recipe.
“We aren’t in a position to connect you with the author (or to share the recipe for reprint) at the moment,” the representative wrote in an Aug. 12 email.
Recipes generally are not protected by U.S. or U.K. copyright law. A list of ingredients required for a dish or the basic instructions for preparing it are considered mere factual information and therefore aren’t covered. Directions and other content in cookbooks may fall under copyright protection, though, if they are considered “substantial literary expression.” News outlets, including The Post, often reprint published recipes and credit their sources — something many authors and publishers welcome for publicity purposes.
On social media, users began picking apart similarities between the two works. Daryl Lim Wei Jie, a poet and author, found recipes for the same dishes that contained nearly identical instructions. Other sections included similar wording.
“By tradition, Nonya Aunties engaged all their senses when they cooked,” Haigh wrote in “Makan.” “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.’”
That description echoes Wee’s words: “Traditionally, the Nonyas engaged all their senses when they cooked — it was important to gauge the color 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. … Cooking was by estimation or what the Nonyas called agak-agak.”
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