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05 Oct 2022

Nadiya Hussain on overcoming shyness and how her sister-in-law’s death changed her

Nadiya Hussain on overcoming shyness and how her sister-in-law’s death changed her

When Nadiya Hussain was in the midst of the gruelling 10-week culinary challenge that is the Great British Bake Off, there was one family member who had no interest in sampling her flavourful creations and elaborate showstoppers.

“My mum is very basic. If I make her cake, she likes to call it ‘no flavour’,” Hussain says on a Zoom call from her home in Milton Keynes, explaining that her Bangladeshi parents didn’t grow up eating chocolate bars or sweets. “My dad used to buy us apples as a treat. I’m like, ‘Dad that’s not a treat’.”

The other reason the novice baker kept her big TV secret under wraps seven years ago was to avoid her mother’s no-holds-barred opinions. “I grew up in a family where they do not mince their words. If your food doesn’t taste good, [my mum] will chuck it in the bin. So yeah, I didn’t tell her because I didn’t need her criticism on top of being judged by judges.”

It’s not a huge surprise, then, that the mum-of-three (she shares sons Musa, 16, and Dawud, 15, and daughter Maryam, 12, with husband Abdal) wasn’t in the habit of blowing her own trumpet, but that’s gradually changing.

“At the very beginning of my career, I felt quite timid, I felt quite shy. I kept being told that I should be grateful for the opportunity, I remember hearing that quite a lot,” says Hussain, who was living in Leeds and studying to become a social worker when her husband printed out a Bake Off application form in 2015 and suggested she apply.

Now, after nine TV cookery series (and a new one out this November), seven recipe books, three children’s books, a novel and a memoir, the bestselling author says: “I’m getting better at not being so self-deprecating and saying, ‘Absolutely, this is my career. This is what I’m really good at’.”

The 37-year-old’s latest recipe collection (and accompanying BBC series), Nadiya’s Everyday Baking, is all about “celebrating the oven and saying, you know what, let the oven do all the work”.

That doesn’t just mean frosting-covered cakes, gooey brownies and biscuits: “Often when people think baking in the oven, they think just sweet treats – that’s not the case. Savoury bakes, dinners, midweek meals, lunches, you name it – you can pretty much do everything in the oven.”

The international melange of recipes includes honey-drizzled baked feta, crusted seabass and one-pot noodle dishes, plus indulgent blondies, pies (including one with a decadent chocolate chip cookie dough crust and hazelnut filling), and an orange semolina cake – the only kind her mum likes.

The launch of a new book is a cause for celebration, of course, but Hussain, who is Muslim and was born in Luton, says she’s come to expect cruel comments from online trolls who seem to pop up whenever publication day approaches.

“I’ll hear words like ‘foreigner’ and really not very nice things. That always really upsets me because I don’t think other people in my position who perhaps are publishing books would have the same sort of hurdles as me to jump.

“I get questioned about my colour, about my faith, about my political stance, I get questioned about so many different things…actually it would be lovely to be left alone just to do what I’m good at.”

Over the years, the much-loved cook has discovered it’s better to ignore the negativity rather than reply to a nasty comment and risk her 859k Instagram followers rushing to her defence.

“I hate that because I highlighted it, they pile on them. Even though I shouldn’t care, I just think it doesn’t really help the situation, it actually makes it worse, so I just kind of step away.”

Particularly now, just three months after the death of her sister-in-law, Ramana, 34 – who was diagnosed with stage four cancer in January and left behind her husband and children aged 11 and eight – Hussain has a new appreciation for the fragility of life.

“She was so young – it does make you realise that we are just mere mortals and that we are not going to be here forever,” she says, the raw emotion evident in her voice.

“In those moments when I feel really annoyed with my kids, I’m like, ‘You know, she would have wanted to be here with her kids, so take this moment just to not bubble over with anger’. It definitely is going to shape me differently as a mum since losing her.”

Stressing the importance of early diagnosis, she encourages anyone who is concerned about their health to seek medical advice as soon as possible.

“I think the pandemic and not being able to get a diagnosis properly for a few years probably did not help situation. What my brother-in-law always says is just don’t be shy. Talk to someone, talk to them fast and get their attention.”

And remember that even in the face of incalcuable loss, you can find meaning – and hope. Hussain says: “You can’t can’t change the inevitable, but you can make every day count.”

Nadiya's Everyday Baking
(Chris Terry/PA)

Nadiya’s Everyday Baking by Nadiya Hussain is published by Penguin Michael Joseph, priced £25. Photography by Chris Terry.

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