Nadiya Hussain on stepping out of her comfort zone and why she’s on a special mission
When Nadiya Hussain talks, you listen. The beloved author, broadcaster and most successful ever Bake Off winner has been blessed with that magical “it”, the intangible thing that makes someone stand out as charismatic. In fact, as the two of us sit and chat about her book Time To Eat and much more besides, part of BALANCE wishes our questions wouldn’t keep getting in the way of Nadiya talking. Some of that zest and zeal comes from the fact that Nadiya is on a special mission; the pride of Bedford has found a higher purpose. Nadiya isn’t just fronting shows, making documentaries and writing books, she is blazing a trail.
Nadiya explains: “I love doing this and I work in an industry where it’s very male-dominated, and quite often I suffer with imposter syndrome, so I turn up to things and I’m like, ‘Ugh, man,’ and that’s my entire life.
“I’ve spent my whole life walking into rooms realising, ‘I’m the only brown face,’ or, ‘I’m the only Muslim person here,’ or, ‘I’m the only person asking to pray at midday.’ I’ve always felt like the awkward person that turns up.
“And it’s no different to the job that I do now; sometimes I turn up to things and think, ‘Oh man, I’m the only one of me,’ but that’s why I understand how it’s so important.
“So now, I kind of show up [with] elbows metaphorically out, ready to say, ‘You know, actually, yeah, I’m not English, and I’m not your standard or the norm, but I am Muslim, and I am brown and I’m Bangladeshi and I’m British.
“I’m all of those things, and I love to cook, and I love to feed, and I’ll write and cook for as long as I’m allowed to. And now I understand the importance of that because, y’know, my kids get to see someone like mummy who goes out into a world where she kind of doesn’t belong, but she does it anyway.”
If it was journalistically acceptable to give someone a standing ovation during an interview, BALANCE would do so. This is stirring stuff. Nadiya talks with heart and soul.
“Somebody asked my son, about a year after Bake Off finished: ‘What does your mummy do?’” she recalls. “He’s like, ‘Oh, yes! Somebody doesn’t know who she is!’ And they said, ‘So what does your daddy do?’ and he’s like, ‘Oh, my Dad works in IT. Boring.’
“And then they say, ‘So what does your mummy do?’ and he doesn’t know what to do. He kind of stopped, a couple of seconds, and my husband was there and he said, ‘Oh, um, I don’t know, but she lives her dreams.’”
Nadiya adds: “I don’t even know what my job title is, but I know that I love what I do, and that’s what’s really important to me.
“But the fact that my kids see me live my dreams, whatever that may be, gives me hope that they’re going to go out one day and say, ‘D’you know what? If she can do it, then I can do it, too.’
“I know that there’s a bigger picture here, there are going to be lots of women of colour, housewives and stay-at-home mums who are going to sit there and chip away at themselves and say, ‘Oh, I don’t think I can do that, oh, I don’t think…’ just constantly doubting themselves.
“But, seriously, if an average Joe like me can get out there and push away all those fears and do something that I love, then there’s hope for all of us.”
Nadiya suffers with panic disorder and so it was her husband who submitted that life-changing Great British Bake Off application form before she roared to glory in 2015. “There was no goal, there was no focus, there was no, ‘Oh, I want a career out of this,’” she explains.
Indeed, Nadiya refused to refer to the final, instead calling it “Week 10”. The F-word was banned from the Hussain house. “It’s not about winning for me,” she explains. “It’s about the fact that I got there and I didn’t intend to get there.
“Everything that came after that, again, not something that I expected, not something that I even asked for. That, I suppose, is the part that’s the most organic in the sense that now, I get these opportunities to write cookbooks, write fiction, do the things that I love, and more often than not, somebody will say, ‘Oh, would you like to do this?’ and I’ll say, ‘No, no thank you,’ because it doesn’t fit in with my lifestyle with the kids and y’know, it’s not always something that I want to do.
“I do what I want to do, and I love cooking and I love writing, and so to be able to write cookbooks feels like the most natural place in the world for me, apart from motherhood.”
Indeed, Time To Eat is more than just a cookbook. As the title suggests, it gives you back something you don’t have in an increasingly frantic world: time. BALANCE admits that we’ve taken to batch cooking and it is a game-changer in saving precious minutes.
“I was about six months into having my first child, and I was already at this point three months pregnant, so I was like, ‘Whoa. Two kids by the end of this year – when will I have time to do anything?’ Then they were on solids, and I was like, okay, so, I’m kind of struggling to make time for me, for my husband, for life. As my family’s grown, the way I do it has changed. Quantities have obviously changed, but the idea has been the same.”
If you’re thrifty, you’re also in luck. “We live in a society now where it’s instant gratification,” says Nadiya. “When we want something, we can just order it in, we can go and buy it, and it’s done, it’s ready. We’ve almost lost the ability to just work a little bit harder to get what we want, and I think we’re so good at throwing things away.
“I don’t throw any of my peelings away, and there’s recipes in this book where you keep all your carrot, potato, parsnip, broccoli stalks, cauliflower stalks, all of it, in a big freezer bag, and when you fill the freezer bag up, you stick all of it into a massive stock pot, veg, loads of veg stalk, garlic, and then you just cook that. And then you blitz it down, and you’ve got a vegetable soup, and nobody will be the wiser that it was all made out of peelings.”
Nadiya adds with a smile: “Don’t throw anything away. If it doesn’t kill you, it’s probably edible.”
THE OTHER SIDE OF FEAR
Nadiya is living proof that, in order to grow, we have to scare ourselves and get out of that comfort zone. “I was always afraid,” she says. “My kids were my security blanket; I was always scared.” The 34-year-old then shares a story about getting the taste for stepping out of her comfort zone, once driving up the M1 in her late teens, purely on a whim, until she ran out of petrol. “So for anyone who is sitting and kind of stewing over things, or they’re stuck in a bubble, think about what scares you the most. Just step back and ask, ‘What could I do that scares the life out of me?’
“I was scared to go into the supermarket without a baby inside the sitting bit of the trolley, because that was my normal, to always have a child to look at and to make eye contact with so I didn’t have to communicate with the rest of the world.
“If that’s all it is, to send your kid to nursery and go and do that shopping trip by yourself, do that because those are the little things that scare us. There is nothing nicer than being on the other side of fear, so anyone who is scared, imagine how great you’re going to feel when you’re on the other side of fear and you look back at it and say, ‘I so totally just did that.’”
Before we go, I tell Nadiya about the impact a close friend had on my hometown in north Leeds. A Muslim of Pakistani heritage, he was a profoundly positive role model purely by being a good person. Multiply that by several million, and that’s the impact Nadiya continues to have.
And she says: “I just see it as me doing my bit. And ultimately, my goal as a parent is to raise good human beings – not good Muslims, not somebody – you know, it’s not about their identity, it’s just about being a good person. And I think that for me has always been the most important thing.
“If you’d asked me three years ago, ‘How do you feel about that?’ I’d want to hide and say, ‘No, I just wanna bake cakes, and cook, and I kinda wanna do my thing – don’t talk to me about my religion, I don’t wanna get into all of that.’ But now, it’s really different for me, because it’s something that I would have shied away from a few years ago, and I understand the importance of doing it. It’s quite scary when I speak to people and they’re like, ‘Thank you for doing what you’ve done.’ Like, what have I done? I haven’t really done anything.”
And yet, she has done so much.
“If I go back to my 12, 13-year-old self and watch TV, I could have thought, ‘Oh there’s nobody like me.’ I didn’t think about it then, but I couldn’t pick up a book and relate to the book, I couldn’t watch television and relate to the person, I couldn’t go into a room full of people and be one of them. Whereas now, I think the difference is the fact that I’m doing it. I can do this, and I can stand there and write a book where a girl can pick it up and say, ‘I get her, I can relate to that character.’ Or they watch me on television and say, ‘She’s just like me.’ Or you know, just go into a room and say, ‘I’m proud of who I am and I don’t need to be like anyone else,’ that in itself is the biggest change that I can make. And if I can raise three human beings who can be proud of who they are – whatever that may be; if they can go into a room and say, ‘You know what, I’m proud of who I am and I don’t have to be a part of anything – I can just be me,’ then that is so important. And that is why I refuse to go away.”
She laughs. “I’m like, ‘I’m not going away.’ Elbows out, remember. Elbows out. And I’m gonna hang around for as long as somebody says I’m an imposter and then I’ll fight some more. But until then, I’m gonna do this for as long as possible because it is just about being decent. I think with everything that happens in the media, sometimes it’s really difficult…because my little girl, after some of the things she watches on the news, she just says, ‘Mummy are we bad people? And is that why nobody likes us?’ And it’s really hard to justify that, to explain that to an eight-year-old. I always just say to her, ‘Look, we are so many things, you know, we’re British, we’re Bangladeshi, we’re Muslims, you’re a girl, he’s a boy – we are a family, but all we have to do is be the best version of ourselves. If anyone tells you that you’re not a good person, you tell them they’re wrong, and you have to believe that.’
“They see mummy go out, and they see me go through things where I find certain situations really tricky, and you know, I’m in this industry where there is nobody else like me, and it’s hard sometimes… Because I just think maybe if I faded away and left, it wouldn’t matter.
“It does matter though, and I know that now. And I wouldn’t have answered this way three years ago, but it does matter, so I intend on sticking around for as long as people are willing to cook and read.”
Time to Eat: Delicious meals for busy lives is available to buy now (Michael Joseph, £20)