Nadiya Hussain on her proudest moment, living with anxiety and the hunt for halal haggis
Nadiya Hussain is wearing a black headscarf on our Zoom call.
I’m slightly nervous, as I’d heard somewhere that she subconsciously wore that colour whenever she was in a bad mood.
“No, it's green. Look”, says Hussain, tipping her head towards the camera so I can see the forest-y shade better. “The sun is shining. I feel happy and healthy. It's Friday!”.
Phew. It might not be orange - her jolliest hue - but green is pretty positive.
Not that her disposition should’ve worried me, as 37-year-old Hussain, who lives outside London with her husband, Abdal, and three children, Musa, 15, Dawud, 14 and Maryam, 11, is hardly known for being difficult.
Quite the contrary. She’s the cheery cherry on top of the bundt cake, and probably - no, definitely - the best known and most successful winner of the Great British Bake Off since it started way back in 2010.
In fact, apart from the occasional cookbook, column or cafe opening, where are all the others now?
Although we still might recognise Candice Brown, Ruby Tandoh, Kim-Joy and John Whaite, from across the 12 seasons, Nadiya is the only bonafide household name. Giuseppe Dell’Anno was the most recent winner, but we haven’t seen much of him yet.
“I think everybody's been really successful in their own way”, says the diplomatic Hussain, who stays in touch with a few other contestants, including Tamal Ray, from her series of the show. “Not everyone’s looking for the limelight, everybody has their own path. I mean, I didn't plan to do this - to come out and have a career. It was a serendipitous moment, a happy accident, that I managed to win”.
She took home the GBBO trophy in 2015, with a moving and tearful leaving speech to a record 15 million viewers, in which she said; “I’m never going to put boundaries on myself ever again. I’m never going to say I can’t do it, I’m never going to say maybe, I’m never going to say ‘I don’t think I can’. I can and I will”.
That was back when the programme was still on the BBC, being presented by Mel and Sue, and hadn’t yet migrated to Channel 4.
Since then, she has worked constantly.
I’m speaking to her in anticipation of the launch of a very smart ‘Nadiya Loves’ Cookware Range of professional-looking kitchenware with Prestige, but she has many other irons in the fire, so to speak.
Post GBBO, in 2016, there was series The Chronicles of Nadiya, which saw her travelling to the north east of Bangladesh, where her parents are originally from. Since then, we’ve had Nadiya’s Family Favourites, Nadiya’s American Adventure, Nadiya’s Asian Odyssey, Nadiya Bakes and various other BBC television series.
The travelogue-style shows have occasionally taken her to Scotland, most memorably when she visited Wester Ross Fisheries in the village of Ullapool.
“It was serene, just beautiful,” she says. Aside from our fish - “delicious salmon” - she also enjoys a few other traditional Scottish foods.
“Shortbread is a must in our house as my kids absolutely love it, though we can't ever get halal haggis anywhere, so we get the vegetarian haggis and make pakoras with it, mix them along with spices and onions. Deep fry them and they're delicious”.
Her visit north of the border was to shoot an episode for the Time to Eat series that was screened in 2019.
All of her television appearances chronologically show her becoming more natural and confident in front of the camera, though never losing her initial charm. The slightly bewildered and what-the-heck-am-I-doing-here look in her eyes disappeared a couple of years ago. Now she’s a telly pro.
She’s also broadened her range when it comes to food, or at least it might seem that way to us. As she says; “I’ve been cooking a lot longer than I’ve been baking. I’m no expert, I’m always learning, but with any food-related information, I absorb it like a sponge”.
Hussain is constantly researching, not only for work, but also because, as well as her staple curries, her children currently love Korean food, especially kimchi, dumplings and homemade noodles.
It’s definitely not just about the cakes any more - though, when I speak to her, she does have something sweet on the go.
“There’s always chocolate in our cupboard that just needs chopping up, so I’ve used that. The cookies are a long old slog, they sit in the fridge for ages and I’ll bake them tomorrow”, she says. I only wish our interview wasn’t virtual, since I’d love to try one, even if it’s still raw and relatively simple, as oppose to a slice of the levitating fizzy pop cheesecake that she made on one memorable episode of GBBO.
Hussain has also had guest appearances on shows like Loose Woman, The Graham Norton Show and The One Show, and she made a purple and gold fondant icing clad three-tier birthday cake for the Queen’s 90th in 2016, while there’s a consistent stream of appearances at book festivals and other events.
We obviously can’t get enough of her, but does she turn anything down?
“I say no to so much. I'm just one person, and it's hard to fit everything in but I need some sort of balance with family life, so I try not to work on the weekends,” she says. “I do as much as I can during the week. Somebody said to me once that the older kids get, the less they need you, but I’ve found that to be completely untrue. The older they become, the more they’ve needed us - emotionally, more than anything else. When they're little, they hurt themselves and come in for a cuddle, but as they get older, they also want that quite a lot. I do turn lots of things down. But I only say yes to things that I really want to do, that mean something to me or I will enjoy”.
It’s been a hectic seven years and, despite having to swerve some jobs due to time constraints and family commitments, Hussain never takes her career for granted.
“I'd love to be doing this for as long as Mary's been doing it,” she says. “But I do have moments of anxiety where I worry that because I stepped into this industry so unknowingly and so quickly, that I could very easily not have this job. I think ‘oh goodness, what if what if I don't do this in 10 years time’, but that’s because I love it so much”.
Despite this feeling, these days she can afford to be more selective.
There’s already a lot in her back catalog to be proud of, though some occasions are more memorable than others.
“I sometimes forget that I received an MBE. I mean, it was unbelievable to be recognised in that way. It's weird because growing up in an immigrant household, my parents weren't massive royalists, they're not that interested,” says Hussain, who was raised in the English town of Luton alongside five siblings. “It was really cool though because my sister said, ‘you deserve that, people recognise you for the hard work that you do’. That was incredible, because I hadn't realised the enormousness of what I've achieved, or what that award might mean”.
Nadiya Hussain MBE, who got the award for her services to broadcasting and the culinary arts, has also been prolific on the book front.
Her first, Nadiya’s Kitchen, came out in 2016 and now there are 16. She’s also written another two during lockdown, with one being released in June this year. As well as the nine cookbooks, there are also children’s books, such as The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters and My Monster and Me, which was written to help younger kids cope with worry.
It’s a subject close to Hussain’s heart, and something, along with her arranged marriage at the age of 20, that she covered in her 2019 memoir, Finding My Voice. This candid read “explores the many different roles assigned to her by her gender, culture, religion and society and how they have each shaped the woman she is today”. Each chapter starts with a poem and ends with a recipe.
It also details her battles with her own “monster”, aka anxiety and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
As well as the book, this was covered in the one-off 2019 BBC One documentary: Anxiety and Me, in which she tried Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to help her deal with her triggers and fears, which include travelling on a busy train at rush hour. It must have taken a lot of fortitude to have a camera record her as she talked openly to a therapist, and be filmed while a panic attack was brewing on a station platform and in a busy carriage. It’s even stressful to watch.
While some people who suffer from anxiety or depression might end up withdrawing and developing a protective shell, it seems that Hussain has gone in the other direction. She’s completely open, and keen to share and document her experiences, even if they might put her in an uncomfortable position. Unlike some celebrities, she doesn’t prickle if you ask her a personal question.
Thus, along with becoming something of a figurehead for Muslim women, who are otherwise massively under-represented in media, Hussain has found herself being a spokesperson for mental health issues. These are chronic problems for her and, although she doesn’t practice CBT any more, she’s currently using other methods to cope.
“I have found ways of reducing my anxiety through meditation, prayer and walking,” she says. “I’ve learnt how to quieten the voices in my head”.
It’s difficult to ascertain the exact source of Hussain’s anxiety, though many of her problems were caused or exacerbated by severe bullying at school, which involved having her head flushed down the toilet and led to her having suicidal thoughts as a child. Although this was a hugely traumatic period in her life, she is sanguine, and says she doesn’t feel anger at those boys anymore. “I wish them well. I wish the world well,” she says.
However, she doesn’t agree or even hope that they might feel guilty or ashamed about what they’ve done, after potentially seeing Hussain talk openly on the television about how their treatment affected her.
“When you’re a bully, do you really see a person’s face, and their feelings and emotions? If you're able to behave that way towards a person, do you even recognise them as a person at all?” she says. “Whether they see or recognise me is not something that takes up any more of my mental space. So yeah, I don't have the bandwidth for that kind of thought”.
Lockdown was a slightly tricky time for most people, when it comes to mental health, and Hussain was no different, though she says “we were very lucky that we didn’t have a lot of the worries that other people encountered”. She enjoyed spending more time at home with the family, but slowing down was difficult and occasionally triggered her anxiety.
“It was sometimes at an all time high and sometimes really low. I rely on, and enjoy, being very busy all the time. I think that's a way of kind of distracting me from my thoughts. And so when I was at home quite a lot, I was stuck in my head a little bit,” she says. “ I spent a lot of time re-organising cupboards or ironing. You know, I found ways of being busy, but it was a really good time to reflect”.
For Nadiya, that has meant editing her workload. As well as the Prestige collection and the upcoming books, she has a few other things in her diary, though she’s not sharing them with me at the moment.
“As we come out of the pandemic and step out into this new version of whatever life is, it's really important for me to do the things that I love even more now than ever,” says Hussain. “And if that's what makes you happy, you've got to do it. I suppose I'm fulfilling lifelong ambitions that I couldn't as a teenager. Sometimes I say to my kids, ‘guys, look, I would have done this if I was a teenager but I'm doing it now’, and they're very understanding and really supportive”.
As she had her marriage, then three children, at a young age, her original plans to go to university were shelved. However, before her appearance on GBBO and while pregnant with her third child, she did, at last, manage to do a Social Work degree through the Open University. It’s a Sliding Doors moment. If her cooking career were to end overnight, she would probably return to that path. After all, it’s probably those inherent people skills that make her so popular and appealing.
The night before I speak to her, she’s the focus of Kate Garraway’s ITV series, Life Stories, which is reminiscent of the retro show, This is Your Life, but without Michael Aspel or the red book. At one point they wheel out Hussain’s school cookery teacher, Mrs Marshall, who inspired her to start baking in the first place. “It was weird but wonderful to see her”, she says.
Despite the fact that this was a surprise and there was a live studio audience, Hussain never looked blindsided or stressed out. She makes it all look easy, even if it’s not.
However, she probably won’t be going to any after parties and staying out late. The off-screen media world isn’t her natural environment.
“I know it sounds bizarre, but as somebody who works in the public eye, I don't like being the centre of attention”, Hussain says.
She’s definitely still an introvert.
“Yeah, absolutely, I definitely am. But if I'm close to people who I'm comfortable and familiar with, they see a version of me that very few others see”, she says. “My sister in law laughs at me. She's always like, ‘how are you the same person as you are on telly?’ I think I am myself on television but there's a silliness when I take my headscarf off. I can be like that with them, but not with anyone else”.
What sort of thing does she get up to?
“I muck around in the kitchen, sing songs, and dance. I just don’t feel 37”, says Hussain. “I think life can just become very serious. And you know, I've got teenagers and they can sometimes make life feel like that because their problems are small, yet huge to them. So you're gonna find ways of keeping that light at home. I just try to have laughter and joy in the house”.
And cookies too. I’m still thinking about those.
Nadiya X Prestige cookware and bakeware range will be available to buy in stores at John Lewis and from Prestige’s website from March 14thwww.prestige.co.uk
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