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Nadiya Hussain: “When I’m in the kitchen, I’m really happy”

Nadiya returns with more Fast Flavours.

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There’s a shock in store in the first episode of Nadiya Hussain’s new BBC Two cookery show Nadiya’s Fast Flavours. Macaroni cheese purists, you may need to sit down. I know the old favourite has been rebranded mac ’n’ cheese in recent years, which was bad enough – but her twist on the ultimate comfort food may have you reaching for the smelling salts.

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She suggests crunching cheese puffs into the sauce. I know, I know – 2021 has been quite a year, hasn’t it? Obviously, I challenged her. She laughs: “If you’re going to have a mac ’n’ cheese, what’s the point in cutting back? You’ve got to throw everything at it. For me, I love that really kind of smelly, cheesy flavour that you get from cheese puffs. I love the orange… I love that colour as well.”

Their hue is certainly distinctive. Sadly, this gooey, calorific treat – her version also features Marmite and evaporated milk – was most definitely not going to be on the Hussain family menu on the day we talked. She has three children (sons of 15 and 14, and an 11-year-old daughter) and her teenagers were off their grub: “…I’ve got two boys off school with a vomiting and diarrhoea bug, and they’ve only just recovered from COVID maybe three or four weeks ago. We’ve had a lot of sickness in our house. It’s weird because I’m the only one that doesn’t get sick. I said to my sister-in-law a couple of days ago, ‘I really want to get sick so I can have a lie-down.’”

Hussain, 36, is indisputably a grafter – something she gets from her mother, who cleans hospital linen, occasionally working seven-day weeks. She references her mum in the first show and acknowledges that her key-worker family are proud of her but don’t get carried away. “They’re really proud of me, but they’re proud of my siblings, too. My sisters work in a pharmacy, a doctor’s surgery, and one works at a school. All of them worked throughout the entire pandemic.”

Some people might be surprised that Nadiya Hussain’s mother is still putting in a seven-day week. Surely she doesn’t need to? “My mum’s a very independent person. You know, when she needs something, I can get her what she needs. But for her, she needs her independence. And she’s stubborn. My goodness, she’s so stubborn. I’m lucky to have her. She’s a wonderful influence on my kids. She teaches them about hard work, resilience, and to keep going.”

Hussain’s children can look to their mother, too, of course. Her honesty about her own mental health – including her challenges with panic disorder – has won her many admirers, and although her TV persona is relentlessly cheery (in Fast Flavours, she dresses in bright colours, grins avidly and fizzes with positivity) she says that’s because the kitchen is, genuinely, her happy place. “My kids are going to look at that and say, ‘You’re not that cheerful all the time.’ But you know what it is? When I’m in the kitchen, I’m really happy. And when I’m teaching people how to cook or do something, it gets me excited.”

So how is she today? “I’m OK. I have my moments. I think it’s really important to be honest. It’s OK to say, ‘I’m not OK today’. Weirdly, I’m a little bit wobbly today. A lack of sleep. But, you know, coffee and chocolate will get me through.”

There can’t be a parent or carer in the land who can’t relate to that. And in so many ways, Hussain is defiantly ordinary. Her teenage sons may normally love her food (they must be some of Britain’s most fortunate offspring in that respect), but they’re beginning to find her a trifle irritating. “My 15-year-old pretty much doesn’t like me at the moment, but I hope that there’s going to be a time in his life when he’s like, ‘Oh, I actually quite like her. She’s actually quite cool.’ Either that, or I’ll just threaten to cut him out of the will. At the time, when I had two kids one after the other, it felt like such a good idea. But now I’ve got two teenagers…”

Happily, her daughter is still a big fan. “My little girl is attached to me like glue. She is like my little best friend.” Let’s hope it stays that way. And yes, the family has been influenced to cut down their meat intake: “My eldest decided that he wanted to become a vegetarian, and he lasted, I think, six hours. We went to my sister’s house, and she’d cooked the most delicious chicken. And he said, ‘I’ll just have the sauce from that.’ He looked around and I said, ‘Do you want the chicken?’ He was like, ‘I do, but maybe I can start this again tomorrow?’ Tomorrow never really came. He loves animals, but he also likes eating them, too.”

She still cooks with meat (there’s a lovely beef curry in the first episode), but they have definitely made changes at home, like lots of other families. “We try not to eat any animal products Monday to Friday. We try to drink alternative milks and eat as many vegetables as possible. We’re doing our bit to help where we can and reduce eating meat. It seems that the shelves are empty anyway. The last time I went to the supermarket, where I’d normally find the potatoes, there were packets of chocolate. So we’re going to replace potatoes with chocolate.” I should emphasise she is joking, in case you were concerned after her cheese puffs revelation.

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Hussain isn’t like other highly successful TV cooks. She won The Great British Bake Off in 2015 and, quite simply, Britain doesn’t have very many conspicuously successful Muslim women. And this makes her very special. And in lots of ways, it puts her in a position of real responsibility, too. “If you’d asked me six years ago, it’s not something I would have openly wanted to talk about. I would have pushed it to the side, and said, ‘Can we just talk about the cooking and the baking and my job?’ Now, I do see it as a responsibility.

“My career is so much more than just working in publishing and television. I have a responsibility to people who relate to me. People of colour. Muslims. Women. Stay-at-home mums. You name it. All of those. There are lots of layers that make me who I am. It does weigh heavy on me sometimes. Those moments where I feel, ‘I don’t know if I can do this’ – I realise the responsibility and I say, ‘Right. Shake it off because you have a responsibility to girls like you who didn’t have representation.’ It is important – heavy, it may be, but you know, it’s something that I happily carry.”

So what’s it like to be her? Does she still go to important meetings where she’s the only person of colour in the room? Hussain is very passionate about this.

“Oh, absolutely. Oh my goodness, yes. I think a lot of people are surprised by that answer, and they think that something has changed drastically within publishing and television. But really, no, I’ll still go to a meeting, and there’s pretty much always just one of me. And while I’m used to it, it’s still not OK. I get asked all the time, ‘Are we doing better?’ And the truth is, yes, we are seeing much more diversity in terms of publishing and television and media. But we mustn’t stop talking about it.

“The second we say, ‘Yeah, we’ve done enough,’ that’s where it stops. So we have to keep going, and we have to keep talking about it, and addressing the issue. Because I think lots of people who work in the kind of industry that I work in, they’ve got parents or uncles or people who they know who work in the industry who find a way through. So how do we help our children to get into the industry? The hope is that I open those doors and allow lots of people to walk through them. You know, I’ll keep holding that door open for as long as I need to.”

Her 2019 autobiography Finding My Voice detailed the sexual assault she’d experienced as a young child. She was just five, and on a trip to see wider family in Bangladesh. She didn’t find it easy to write about, understandably, and is, as ever, honest enough to say there have been moments when she regretted saying anything about it at all.

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“I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t regret it, because I think there were moments when I’d written it into the book, and then written it out, and then thought, ‘Oh, should I? Shouldn’t I?’ And I did ask my husband.

I said, ‘This is a big part of me that I’m giving away. Once it’s out there, I can’t take that back.’ And I had to ask myself, ‘Why are you writing this? And who are you writing it for?’ And the reality is that I grew up in a community where every girl I’d come in contact with, that I was friends with, had suffered some sort of sexual abuse through the hands of…” she hesitates. “At the hands of a relative. And so it felt… every time I thought about that – that’s a big number. You know, in a group of girls, if every single one had suffered just the way I have, there’s a problem there that isn’t being addressed.”

This is not, of course, confined solely to any one community. But some communities make it even harder to talk about. And Hussain knows her words have had a real impact.

“I met some incredibly brave people who’ve kind of said, ‘This has happened to me, and you’re the first person I’ve ever told.’ And that’s a big step for somebody and all adults, you know, who’ve spent their whole lives carrying this thing with them, just like me. Often, within these communities, we don’t talk about sexual abuse or predatory behaviour. And so if it sparks something in a parent to say, ‘Actually, have I spoken about this to my children? Is this something that I’ve gone into detail about – what’s private and what isn’t private, and what is allowed and what isn’t allowed?’ If it can just spark that conversation, then I think that, to me, is job done.”

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Nadiya’s Fast Flavours airs Thursday at 8:30pm on BBC Two. If you’re looking for more to watch, check out our handy TV Guide. Buy Nadiya’s book, Finding My Voice, on Amazon now.

This edition of The Big RT Interview originally appeared in the Radio Times magazine. For the biggest interviews and the best TV listings subscribe to Radio Times now and never miss a copy.