Photo: Chris Terry
Goal 2: Zero Hunger
‘no food gets wasted in our house!’
Chef Nadiya Hussain talks life, love and cooking. Plus she reveals how she's taught her three children never to bin any food, even orange peel
By EMMA ELMS
28 MAY 2021
After winning The Great British Bake Off in 2015, Nadiya Hussain, now 36, was the first Muslim woman to become the face of a mainstream TV show in the UK. Since then, she has written 10 books, fronted several hit TV series (including BBC2’s Nadiya Bakes and Time To Eat) and even baked a birthday cake for the Queen. Here, Nadiya shares her top tips on cutting food waste, her arranged marriage love story and how she manages her anxiety.
How did your interest in food first develop?
My dad ran restaurants throughout his life, so I was used to being in that environment and my mum is an amazing home cook. Cooking, eating and celebrating with food is all part of the culture of being in an immigrant household. At about nine or ten, I became curious about what Dad was cooking and I’d ask, ‘What’s that?’ We’d experiment and cook together, whereas my mum who spent a lot of time in the kitchen, was like, ‘No I don’t want you in here, I just want to cook!’ There were six of us and we’d get under her toes, so she hated us being in the kitchen with her! As I got older, I ended up cooking for my younger siblings. It became a big part of my life.
Nadiya with her dad, who inspired her to cook
Earlier this year, you fronted the charity WRAP’s Food Waste Action Week. What do you do at home to reduce food waste?
We don’t waste anything at all, it’s become a way of life. For instance, when my kids eat clementines, they know to leave the peel in a bowl on the radiator because it makes a natural fragrance in the house. I also use them to cook with if I’ve bought too many – I grind the peel down to a fine dust, then using it in my baking. We have a big scrap bag in the freezer with everything from carrot and potato peelings to celery tops, then we make a massive soup with it at the end of the week. I even use my leftover tea bags to clean my cast iron pans. If you leave a tea bag in them, they come up beautifully. I freeze any leftovers in single portions, so when my husband, who often eats late at night after doing a workout, comes in and says, ‘Oh, do we have anything?’ he’s got his individual portions ready to use. Nothing is wasted in our house!
You won Bake Off back in 2015. What made you decide to apply?
I didn’t actually want to apply! It was my husband who said, ‘I think you should apply.’ I didn’t want to do it. He reluctantly watched Bake Off with me and didn’t enjoy the show as much as I did, but he was the one who said, ‘I think you should do it.’ I humoured him at first, but then in the end obviously I went on to win and my life has changed so much. I don’t regret it for a second.
You've spoken about how your arranged marriage to your husband Abdal Hussain has worked out beautifully. Tell me about the first time you met…
We had this semi-arranged marriage where our families knew each other, but we had been talking over the phone to each other for about six months, so we got to know each other. It was really weird because the day we got engaged was the first day we’d met each other in person! I knew that he was five foot ten but we’d only seen two pictures of each other. The day we got married was only the second time we’d seen each other. Before then, we’d only spent about three or four minutes together.
Nadiya with her husband Abdal
How did that very first meeting go?
It was at my mum’s house and all his family were there. My two little brothers and my little sister were chaperones, so they had to be in the room when we were talking. We had a quick chat and Abdal said, ‘I think we’re going to get married’ and I said, ‘Okay, yay, great!’ and then he was gone. Three weeks later, we got married. Then we moved in together 10 days later.
As soon as you met, did you think, ‘Yes, this is going to work’?
He was good-looking, that’s all I’m saying! I mean when you’re 19, what else are you looking for, apart from somebody gorgeous, right?! I think I got lucky. At 19, you’re like, ‘Yeah, he’s good-looking, he’ll do! He has a good job.’ You don’t really think about all the nitty-gritty details you would if you were a bit older. I think ultimately the thing that keeps us together is that our values are the same. We want the same things for our family.
You talked about your experiences of anxiety in your powerful BBC documentary, Anxiety and Me. At what age did it start?
I think it started as early as seven – for as long as I can remember. As a child I was quite badly bullied and I suffer from GAD [Generalised anxiety disorder] and PTSD [Post-traumatic stress disorder].
How do you feel when you have an acute panic attack?
When it gets to the point of having a panic attack, those feelings have already built up over a few days. Then for me it comes to a head when I have a panic attack. It starts off with worrying a lot about something, then I get the physical symptoms – struggling to breathe, feeling light-headed and often a terrible chest pain. I haven’t had one for a really long time though, so that’s good.
Do you think your anxiety will always be part of you?
I’d like to see a life without it. It’s exhausting to live with day in, day out, knowing you’ve got that monster with you, whether he’s big and getting in your way, or whether he’s tiny and getting in your pocket. I’ve lived a life thinking, ‘Who would I be if I didn’t have anxiety?’ For a long time, I believed my anxiety made me who I was and gave me the drive and passion I have, but I think that’s giving it way too much credit. I am who I am and I can be that person without the anxiety.
You’ve achieved so many amazing things. How do you manage your anxiety?
I think I’ve become very good at just hiding it behind a smile, but that’s really exhausting as well. I’m very lucky in that I have a really supportive family, so I can ring my sister and chat to her about it. Equally, she can do the same with me. It’s lovely to be able to have that kind of open conversation. That’s the thing that’s really helped me over the last few years to be able to openly say, ‘I have anxiety and I just need to have a chat.’ I always try to teach my children, ‘Be open, talk to me if you’re upset. If there’s a feeling you don’t understand, you just need to talk openly to me about it.’ Rather than trying to fight through those emotions, sometimes I just say to my family, ‘I’m having a bad day and I need to sit in the bath for an hour.’ Just being honest about it really helps.
Photo: Chris Terry
At #TOGETHERBAND we’re committed to tackling prejudice through our campaigning work. How have you dealt with any racism you’ve encountered over the years, whether in real life or on social media?
It’s tough because I grew up in a generation where you were told, ‘Just ignore it and it’ll go away.’ I’ve tried ignoring it and hoping it will go away, and the truth is: it doesn’t. That’s what I’ve found especially with social media. It took me a long time to respond and when I did respond, I found it quite triggering and difficult. So now six years later, I’ve got a balance. I’ve been attacked because of the way I dress, because of the colour of my skin, so I’m all too familiar with racism. I often get asked, ‘Is Britain getting better? Is Britain racist?’ We’re moving forward but not fast enough.
After winning Bake Off in 2015, you became the first Muslim woman to become the national face of a mainstream TV show. How does that feel?
It’s sad that it’s not something that’d already happened, but we have to start somewhere. The fact we’re moving forward, even though it’s slower than I’d like, for somebody like me who’s never seen anybody like me on mainstream television, that’s progress. We’re a step in the right direction. That’s why my career is so important. It’s about understanding that there’s a problem within the media, that there isn’t that representation [of Muslim women]. For me, it’s about doing a job I love but also shouldering that and making sure I do stay present so that representation continues to shine.
How has your life changed since winning Bake Off?
A lot of things have changed in the last six years. Going out isn’t as easy as it used to be. It’s lovely to do things like the school run because everybody knows me and nobody bats an eyelid. But for me personally, nothing has changed that much. I still have to raise my family. I’m mostly at home, I refuse to work weekends, no matter what the job is. Of course, it’s a juggling act and it can be hard to balance work and home life, but I have an amazing husband who’s really supportive.
Nadiya with her two sons and daughter
What has becoming high-profile given you the opportunity to do?
Being able to work with charities has been amazing. I’ve worked with WaterAid, Starlight, Great Ormond Street Hospital… that’s something I really enjoy. One of the things I’ve noticed over the past year during lockdown is how I’ve been able to support small independent businesses, including Black-owned businesses, by going on Instagram and posting about some of the wonderful things that I buy.