“For me, food and emotion are so tied together and I have probably felt every food emotion that you can think of,” Nadiya Hussain tells me, as we sit in a sunlit room in her publisher’s office with a view of the Thames beneath us. “I’ve been there when you feel so sick with worry that you can’t possibly put food in your mouth – food is the last thing you think of. I’ve been so sad that the only thing I can think about is throwing food down my face, as I’ve been desperate to comfort-eat. There are times when I’m feeling unwell and I know green juice will do me some good. So, our emotions and food are so tied together – it’s a powerful thing, is food.”
Hussain has suffered from panic attacks and panic disorder since the age of seven and traces it back to the racist bullying she experienced at school, including one incident when a group of boys held her up against the chalkboard and smothered her face in chalk dust. She talks me through the emotional journey underpinning her Bake Off experience: “When I was on Bake Off, every bake that I did was somehow related to a family member and essentially that kept me going, as I was baking for someone else and that’s the story of my life. It was about not feeling that panic any more – it was about trying to eradicate this horrible fear that I have and this horrible illness. What I learnt was that I was going on a journey that I thought was about me, but it turned out it was about everybody else.”
She believes passionately about the importance of speaking out with emotional honesty about mental health and that there’s still a long way to go in destigmatising such issues. During childhood, she didn’t talk about such experiences, but in adulthood she is keen to do so, and discusses them with her own children, too.
Aside from baking, her other passion is writing and storytelling – she tells me that, for her, writing is a kind of therapy – and she has combined her two loves in her children’s books. It was her children’s “love of reading and being read to” while their mother was “elbow-deep in the kitchen” that inspired Hussain’s first children’s book, which was shortlisted for British Book of the Year alongside JK Rowling. Her new book, Bake Me A Festive Story, continues her celebration of the two things that she enjoys doing most with her children – baking and sharing stories – and sees 30 recipes interwoven with delightful original poems and stories, as well as riffs on classic stories such as The Little Fir Tree and The Snow Queen. “What’s been key to the book is that it’s not just me who’s written it – it’s been tested by my children; they’ve been such a big part of it.”
We discuss how food seeps through the generations of families. She grew up in a traditional Bengali home: “We never used the oven – my mum used it for storage and put all her frying pans in there. It was always stove-top cooking. My dad has worked in restaurants his entire life and is a really instinctive cook. I grew up with two very good cooks, in a very competitive kitchen.” About her mother’s generous cooking, she says: “Even now, my mum will cook eight different curries [per meal] and we always have a go at her and say you could be doing so much more with your time.”
I learnt how to cook because my dad pushed us in the kitchen. It was very much ‘You will be someone’s wife one day’
During childhood, did she watch her mother cooking and learn the recipes? “No. My mum did not teach us how to cook. I learnt how to cook because my dad pushed us in the kitchen. It was very much ‘You will be someone’s wife one day and I want someone to say to me you raised your daughter really well and she’s an amazing cook’.” Hussain, who had an arranged marriage aged 20, says her mother was less keen: “My mum was chained to the kitchen and was cooking all the time, for six kids. She resented cooking. So, she would say, ‘I don’t want my daughters to grow up and spend a lifetime cooking’ – and now that I cook for a living and bake and I’m in the kitchen, she says, ‘Of all jobs in the world, you had to pick the one I said not to do.’”
I tell her I relate, since I also grew up rebelling against the notion that a woman’s place was in the kitchen, so never learnt the delicious recipes my mother could have passed down to me. Only lately – after an early adulthood of living on takeaways and chocolates and pot noodles – have I decided to learn to bake, and I've found it brings a sense of wellbeing. My young nieces and nephews love baking, too, and I tell Hussain that they love her children’s baking books. It seems as if Hussain has made baking fun again, I suggest. “Cooking and baking have become quite stylish and what’s happened is that there’s no gender bias any more – it’s not just a woman thing,” she says. “Before, I think it was something just women did – but not any more. Although I still can’t get my husband to cook. Not that he’d be a good cook anyway!”
Her new book, Bake Me A Festive Story, conjures the storytelling spirit of festivities. Although Hussain doesn’t celebrate Christmas in a religious sense, the stories underpinning it are a part of her cultural heritage – her birthday is on Christmas Day, while her sister’s is on Christmas Eve, and it’s the one day her father takes off work so that all the family are together. Both food and storytelling are powerful ways of transcending divisions of religion and race, I suggest. “Yes. Jo Cox said there’s a lot more that unites us than divides us and words like that have never been more real right now, and we are united by so much – by the pure fact that we all feel human emotion,” she says. “No matter your religion or ethnicity or whoever you are, you still feel sadness or happiness or joy or anger. Beneath our egos and our skin and our faces, we’re all skeletons under there. That’s what I teach my children and it’s a basic lesson – take away the skin, take away the organs and everyone under there is a skeleton exactly the same.”
It’s been said that Hussain has done more for race relations than anyone – how does she feel about that? “When I went on Bake Off, being a Muslim wearing a headscarf was something incidental – it wasn’t something I planned. It’s not something I think about every time I walk into the room – ‘Oh, look at me; I’m a Muslim’ – I don’t think of it like that because I feel like I’m part of the fabric of the United Kingdom. But I realised, after having done Bake Off, that I was the first Muslim woman on it and I realised, over the last two years, that you don’t see that many people of colour on mainstream television. Now, as a mother, now that I am that face, I think we should see more of that – and I think, like my children and like I was, growing up, they need to see a face and think, ‘I can relate to that face.’”
Since winning Bake Off in 2015, Hussain has been busy and is currently presenting The Big Family Cooking Showdown alongside Zoë Ball.
“The one thing I’ve learnt about myself in the last two years, since applying for Bake Off, is that I welcome fear now,” she reflects. “If it scares me, I’ll do it. Because the one thing I hate is being afraid of something and walking away from something because I was afraid. I would rather do it, know I’ve done it and know I’ve conquered that fear and I didn’t let it conquer me. Because I’ve spent a lifetime being scared of not doing things and I refuse to any more. I welcome fear – although I will not be jumping out of planes anytime soon.”
Nadiya Hussain's Bake Me A Festive Story (illustrations by Clair Rossiter) is published by Hodder Children’s Books