'I’m not the perfect Muslim, I'm not the perfect Brit: I'm just being me': Bake Off's Nadiya Hussain talks living in the spotlight ahead of her new BBC cookery show
The Great British Bake Off's 2015 winner brings a feast of fresh ideas to Nadiya’s Family Favourites
Nadiya Hussain’s three children have no idea what their mum’s job is. They know vaguely that it’s something to do with television and baking cakes and writing things. But when someone recently asked her 11-year-old son what his mother did, he replied without missing a beat: “She lives her dreams.”
Hussain smiles as she tells the story. “And I was like, ‘You know what?… That means to me one day they’re going to go and live their dreams. What more can a mum want?’ I don’t care what they do as long as they’re happy doing it.”
You can understand her elder son’s confusion. Hussain has had a dizzying three years. She won the sixth series of The Great British Bake Off in 2015, a victory watched by 13.4 million, approximately 13.3 million of whom were moved to tears by her rousing victory speech: “I’m never gonna say, ‘I don’t think I can,’” she said at the time. “I can and I will.”
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Overnight, Hussain became a new kind of role model. She was young, modern, British and also a hijab-wearing Muslim woman of colour who grew up one of six children in a working-class Bangladeshi community in Luton and had an arranged marriage at the age of 20. On screen, she was an infectiously warm presence, and a move into presenting seemed the natural progression. Since then, she’s fronted several food programmes, including a BBC2 series last year called Nadiya’s British Food Adventure, and was chosen to bake the Queen’s 90th birthday cake. She’s also got a novel and five cookbooks to her name.
The latest, Nadiya’s Family Favourites, was published in June and Hussain, 33, is now launching an accompanying television series, featuring a selection of recipes that mix together the best bits of several cultures. Growing up, her father was a restaurateur and her mother cooked eight curries a day because she was worried about people going hungry. Hussain ate traditional Bangladeshi dishes alongside fish and chips, so culinary eclecticism came naturally. The dishes in Family Favourites therefore include a pork pie stuffed with samosa filling, a fish-finger lasagne and macaroni cheese with piccalilli.
“To me, spices and pies and spaghetti and curry, they’re not different cuisines,” Hussain explains. “I suppose I’m spoilt in the sense that I don’t follow tradition. I cook Bangladeshi food and I cook British food and I cook some other food. And I don’t feel guilty tossing the recipes up in the air and coming up with something completely different.” She proudly confirms a report I’d read that she once ate 18 fish fingers in one sitting. “And I only left the other two because I felt like it was impolite!” she whoops. “I can do more now, you know. I’m training my fish-finger habit!”
The idea behind the TV series is to provide easy, inventive meal ideas for harassed families who “struggle for time”. Hussain knows about this only too well, having spent much of the past three years juggling work commitments with maintaining a family life that is deeply important to her.
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“The only thing I ever try really hard at is being the best mum I can be,” she says. “And you don’t need to have lots of money or lots of time to eat well and eat together. Every time I sit down with my kids and have a meal, it’s madness – madness! – but my god, it’s the best feeling in the world… That’s, I suppose, the spirit of the show.”
Hussain and her husband, Abdal, have brought up their three children – two boys, Musa, 11, and Dawud, ten, and a seven-year-old girl, Maryam – to be unfussy about food and also not to be scared about experimenting. When Hussain was younger, her mother often cooked with offal and she has introduced the same flavours to her own kids, so that they are now entirely unfazed by the idea of tripe and cow’s tongue.
“If you asked them what their favourite thing was… this morning there was some [leftover] fish-head curry so I said, ‘Can you have that when you come back from school?’ At 6.45 in the morning, I’ll tell you the scene in my house.” She assumes the voice of an excited, shouting child. “‘Fish-head curry! Fish-head curry!’ That’s what they were chanting at 6.45 as I was leaving. Can you imagine the sound?”
She laughs. Unsurprisingly, Hussain has little truck with fussy eaters. The recent trend for “clean eating”, as propounded by myriad Instagram influencers, makes her visibly shudder with distaste.
“I think we spend so much time as a society worrying about what we shouldn’t be eating and clean eating and being picture perfect, I don’t think we spend nearly as much time as we should on our minds. Because what is that doing to your head?
“Every time I turn something on or read something or look at social media, there’s always someone telling me I can’t eat this, I can’t wear this, this isn’t allowed, this shouldn’t be done. I’m kind of fed up with it.”
At home, practicality rules. “I always say to [my kids], ‘It’s not a restaurant, there’s no menu, you eat what you’re given or you go to bed hungry.’ And I’m a little bit of a tiger mum like that. When they were really young they would go to bed hungry and I’d feel really guilty but I’d say to myself, ‘Get over that guilt, because actually this will make them better people if they realise that actually Mum works hard and she doesn’t need to cook five different meals for five different people.’”
Sometimes the family will eat at a table, sometimes they will sit on the floor eating curry with their hands – just as Hussain did as a child. On Friday nights, for a special treat, they will occasionally get fish and chips and spend the evening at home in Milton Keynes playing board games, culminating in Twister, which Hussain’s daughter Maryam “always loses. She always goes off in a strop, has a little cry. That’s our routine on a Friday night. And then they’ll all snuggle into bed with me. They’ll all fall asleep and then one by one I’ll peel them out into their own beds when my husband comes up. And that’s what gives me sanity.”
The lovely thing about Hussain is that, in spite of the rapid and overwhelming scale of her celebrity, she remains seemingly untouched by it. She is warm, engaging company, a woman who talks a mile a minute and then apologises for giving me overly long answers. She is appalled, when she walks into the central London hotel room where we are doing the interview, to find that the gas fire is lit in high summer while the air-conditioning is also on full blast.
“What’s that about?” she asks, before ordering a green tea with honey. She’s got a sore throat, she explains apologetically, and has just come from doing six hours of voiceover recording for the new TV series.
“Three episodes of voiceover. And [you have] to remain enthusiastic after five hours: pinch yourself, eat more sweets, stay awake.”
In person, Hussain has an impressive presence. She has a beautiful face, almost entirely unlined (“Make-up!” she insists) and radiates a sort of bright, easy compassion. She remains aware of where she came from and of the privileged, rather peculiar position she now finds herself in. Her grandmother, who came to the UK from Bangladesh in her 30s, is illiterate and does not speak English, so has never been able to read one of her granddaughter’s books.
“She knows ‘Vaseline’ and ‘Vicks’ and that’s about it,” says Hussain. “I did show her my first cookbook and I said, ‘Look at this picture, this is your cod in clementine!’ And she looked at it and she goes, ‘It doesn’t look right.’”
Hussain laughs. She’s often called an inspiration, and it’s an accurate description. It has meant that she is often catapulted into discussions about race and religion because there are so few women of her cultural background in the public eye. In January, she hit back at racist Twitter trolls telling her to “go home” by responding: “Go home to where? I am home."
I wonder how it feels to be expected to represent an entire community or faith, purely because of winning a baking competition?
“I think if you’d asked me that a year after Bake Off I would have said I just kind of want to blend into the background and that my wearing a headscarf should be completely incidental,” she says. “You know, it’s a part of who I am and it shouldn’t be what defines me. But I think, three years on, I understand the importance of it now.
“I do identify as a Muslim and I do identify as a Bangladeshi girl, I identify as British, as well, and a woman and I’m a woman of colour, and why am I ashamed of that? And I used to not want to talk about it… But that is me.
“And I think in accepting that, I’ve become a lot more comfortable being who I am… I said from the get-go, I’m not the ‘perfect’ anything: I’m not the perfect Muslim, I’m not the perfect Bangladeshi or the perfect ‘British person’… so anyone who’s got abuse or criticism, go ahead! I don’t care. I never said I was perfect! I’m just being me, and that’s all I can ever be. But I understand the importance of being a brown, Muslim woman of faith who is in the public eye, because there aren’t that many of us. So I know that I’m representing a lot of groups and I know how important that is, especially for women.”
In the past, Hussain has been open about living with panic disorder. How does she manage that now that she’s famous and people on the street routinely ask her for selfies?
“I would love to tell you that it’s balanced,” she says quietly. “But it’s not. I have really good days. And I have really, really, bad days. And when I’m really tired, I know I get really upset.”
Mostly it’s a positive experience when she gets recognised, although she tends to shop less in supermarkets now and do more online to avoid the hassle. She’s found that if she wears a white headscarf, she never gets noticed and a lot of the time, people can’t quite place her.
“A man came up to me and he looked me in the face and he said, ‘You work at H&M.’” She grins. “And I said, ‘Yes. Yes I do.’ And about a month ago this lady said, ‘Are you Fatima?’ I said, ‘Nope.’ And I gave her a chance just to kind of come back and say, ‘I think you might be Nadiya off the telly.’ And I didn’t say anything and then my daughter was like, ‘She thinks you’re Fatima! Who’s Fatima?’ Ha! But the best one has to be, ‘You’re that girl who won MasterChef.’”
She laughs. She didn’t win MasterChef, of course, but I wouldn’t put it past her. After an hour in her company, I’m entirely convinced that Nadiya Hussain could do anything she set her mind to – and that includes being a role model for modern Britain as well as eating a whole packet of 20 fish fingers.
Nadiya’s Family Favourites starts on Monday 16 July at 8pm on BBC2