It may well be that, along with 15 million other Great British Bake Off viewers, you thought of Nadiya Hussain as the gentlest soul ever to come out of Luton with a spatula in her hand and a recipe for Raspberry Jam Puddle Brownies. You might want to reconsider. “I learnt to slaughter animals in Bangladesh with my granddad when I was five,” she says in the happy voice I last heard discussing the Queen’s birthday cake. “Goats, sheep, cows, chickens; I can do all that. It was completely normal to us. I’m definitely not squeamish.” There’s a short silence while I take this in. “Ducks as well.”
Until now I’d known Hussain as a 31-year-old national icon of niceness rather than a dispatcher of livestock. But we’re in London discussing The Chronicles of Nadiya, her new two-part series about Bangladesh, and she is determined that I know what her life was like there when she was young.
She was born in Luton, where her father owned Indian restaurants. Every summer he would take Nadiya, her mother, two brothers and three sisters to his home village outside Sylhet in the north east of the country. Nadiya remembers exchanging “a life playing out in the street and going to the corner shop with our pennies” for “milking buffaloes”. How do you milk a buffalo? “One person stands in front of the buffalo and strokes it and keeps its attention away from its legs,” she says. “And the other person just works very, very fast.”
There are few genuine star-is-born moments in British television but Hussain’s 2015 conquering of Bake Off more than qualifies. One week Paul Hollywood was surveying the disaster that was her vol-au-vents and mournfully declaring her “in the drop zone”. The next he was gazing, awestruck, at her nested wedding cake and saying, “Nadiya, that is amazing”.
The Chronicles of Nadiya
“It’s unbelievable,” she says of Bake Off. “I’ve found people have been so positive.” Not all people. When she won, The Sun (which now publishes her recipes) complained that BBC producers would be doing a “multi-cultural jig of politically correct joy”. The Daily Mail, inferring that Nadiya’s ethnicity and faith disqualified her from making jam sponges, called her “a smiley Muslim head-dress wearer”.
The famous smile, like so much else, she attributes to her dad. “Any time I get upset he goes, ‘Come on – that smile can light up the world, just light it up.’” But she’s not inclined to defend her religion or headgear. “Do you know what?” she says. “I’m just me. I’m a part of the Bangladeshi community, I’m a part of the Muslim community, I’m British. But my aim isn’t to represent any of those communities, my aim is to represent me, and the best job and the most important job that I do is being a mum – and if I can nail that then I’m happy.”
Earlier this year she told ITV’s Loose Women she was bullied at school for having dark skin, but now she denies encountering any prejudice. “No! No, not at all,” she insists. “It’s not something that I experienced growing up. It was lovely. We grew up in a predominantly Asian neighbourhood, lots of mosques around.” She says she has never been criticised by conservative elements in the Muslim community for doing Bake Off. “If there is anything negative, I don’t know about it.”
Hussain was such a natural on television that it seems surprising it’s taken this long for her to get her own series. The Chronicles of Nadiya is both a travelogue and a chance for her to play around with her Anglo-Bangladesh heritage. “Normally when I’m in Bangladesh I would use spices in curries,’ she says. “But instead I did the opposite and put the spices in a cake.”
There could hardly be a
conflation more attractive to
the British palate than curried
cake, but she upset some Bangladeshis when she told
The Guardian, “The concept
of dessert doesn’t exist in Bangladeshi cuisine”. Today she is
more circumspect, saying simply
that she didn’t encounter “sweet
things, biscuits or cakes” when she
was younger. Certainly no one is going to get fat. “My family are farmers. You can eat rice and curry eight times a day
as long as you work it off! And they are lean, you know? And they’re healthy. My granddad lived to 100.”
Food naturally marked the important moments in a village where Nadiya had “40-plus cousins” and their arrival would be marked by a feast. “Somebody would slaughter and cook a goat. There were lots of vegetables cooked in many different ways, fermented fish, lentils and lots of curry. But after that it was down to work like everybody else and we’d be picking out hay with the other children.”
The trips to Bangladesh were their father’s training scheme. “It was an education for us,” she says. “There are open sewers and children living on the streets, people dying. We saw all that. So we definitely weren’t the kind of children who complained or turned down food. Even at eight or nine, you can’t see what we saw and then say, ‘I don’t eat that’ at mealtime. We would sleep and eat as the other children did. There was no such thing as being fussy.
“I encourage my kids to try things. They love fermented fish, even though it stinks your house out! My dad always said you have to eat what you are given. With my mum if I said, ‘Oh, I’m not sure,’ about eating something she would say, ‘I don’t think she wants to eat it,’ and my dad would say, ‘That’s all she’s getting so she has to.’”
Nadiya and her father, Jamir Ali
Her dad looms over our conversation much as he loomed over her childhood. “He was very experimental,” she says. “He would buy a whole sheep and give us a masterclass on how to butcher it.” In Bangladesh? “No, in Luton. People got used to him. It was like, ‘That’s just my dad, walking in with a sheep on his shoulder.’” What about her mum? “She’s an amazing cook, but she didn’t cook because she enjoyed doing it. She had six children, she wanted to feed us, clean up and be out – get the job done.”
It was her father who explained to the Bangladeshi branch of the family just what the Bake Off victory meant. “He is my biggest, my ultimate fan,” she says. “And he did a marathon Skype and then he took over the ten episodes on DVD and watched it with them. That’s when they really understood what I’d been doing.”
When I ask if it’s a big deal for a woman to be out on her own in rural, conservative Bangladesh with a camera crew she says, “It’s very difficult for me to say, because I’m not from Bangladesh. I did what I thought I wanted to do. Whether it’s acceptable or not I can’t say. But you know what? I never follow rules and conventions.”
And what did she learn on her return to Bangladesh? “Actually, I rediscovered something. When I was young, my dad wouldn’t eat anything unless his relatives were eating with him. That’s something that I’ve learnt again in Bangladesh. Every time I turned up with the crew, somebody had something to offer. Food is so much more than sustenance. Food is love.”
The Chronicles of Nadiya is on tonight on BBC1 at 9pm