It is almost lunchtime when Nadiya Hussain arrives at my front door. She is bearing gifts. Among them, a tin of pastries she had fried that morning. “They’re my mum’s favourite,” she adds, handing me a tin of flaky, parcels, laminated like a cronut, each layer dusted with icing sugar and freckled with black onion seeds. We debate whether they are savoury or sweet. (The answer is both.) Two are wolfed instantly without the tea and clotted cream she insists they need and the rest are squirrelled away for tomorrow’s breakfast, but only because we are about to tuck into lunch.
Even before she reached the final of The Great British Bake Off, Nadiya was known to television viewers by a single name, like Nigella or Jamie. What fans of the programme like myself couldn’t know, as we took this quietly confident contestant to our hearts, was that between takes, she was running off to cry in the loo, shaking with nerves and unsure about how this could ever have happened to her.
Nadiya hadn’t even entered Bake Off herself. It was her husband, Abdal, who had sent in the application to be considered against those of 13,000 other hopefuls. Racked with anxiety attacks and a distinct lack of confidence, her hands already full as a mother, the idea of being watched by millions on one of the country’s most popular TV programmes was for her unthinkable. Only weeks previously she had broken down in tears, exhausted, in the doctor’s surgery. He had prescribed antidepressants.
“From the moment I got married and became a housewife and had my kids, I had never experienced fear. I had protected myself from it. I never spent a moment away from them. When my husband came home, the kids would be in bed, everything would be like clockwork. I would go and see Mum and Dad in Luton every three weeks. It was a routine. I never did anything spontaneous.”
I am intrigued why she had accepted the call. “For the first time I got that flutter of fear. I had to sit in the car for an hour on the phone, with the kids in the back. I had to entertain them while I talked. I felt a rising bubble of fear.”
Anyone who has read Finding my Voice, Nadiya’s 2019 memoir, will know of the insecurities that hide behind the beaming smile and her masterful put-downs of internet trolls. Insecurities that remain to this day. We have met a couple of times before at parties and yet she admits, “I suddenly got an attack of nerves coming here.” I quickly point out that I’d had one too, when it dawned on me that not only was I baking a cake for the winner of Bake Off but also cooking rice for someone who has been doing so on a daily basis since she was five. (It turns out we approach the matter identically, swishing the grains through several bowls of water till the liquid is clear, covering with the same 3cm of cold water and adding the same aromatics – cinnamon stick, black peppercorns and cardamom.)
Nadiya’s latest cookbook, Time To Eat, is a collection of her trademark, user-friendly recipes. Peppered with ideas for a crustless spinach quiche, pizza paratha and baked bean falafel with a sriracha mayonnaise, it is one of four cookbooks she has penned, along with six children’s books. I choose a curried chicken recipe, a riff on one she was given in Thailand, made with a toasted coconut spice paste.
We chat as I stir creamed coconut into the curry sauce and apologise for wimping out at the inclusion of 120g of chillies (I use 90g, a mistake, I should have trusted her). Nadiya asks if something is burning. Of course it is. The bloody rice. Only an hour before, as I stirred the spice paste that was the base for her lunch, the kitchen was filled with the scent of toasting coconut, sweet and reassuring, like that of popcorn at the cinema. Now it smells of burned rice. Luckily, the damage is minimal. We simply have a dark golden crust on the bottom of the pan, like the much-prized crust of the Persian tahdig. We tuck into my rendition of Nadiya’s curry with our hands.
As popular as Nadiya’s chop-n-chat cookery shows are, it is her documentaries I find even more rewarding. The first, where she travelled to Bangladesh, newly famous and accompanied by a film crew to catch up with her extended family, had me welling up. It is a programme I hold up as the very best example of travel-cum-cookery show. (She is in the middle of another.) And yet it is the honest, intimate and raw film about her own mental health that really made the headlines. At that point, few had talked quite so publicly about such matters as anxiety, panic attacks, bullying and depression. It launched a small and welcome avalanche of stories from celebrities we had always assumed overflowed with confidence.
The conversation inevitably turns to that of her new position as role model. Was it what you wanted, I venture.
“It was definitely accidental. I didn’t go into television to end up as anyone’s role model. I’ve got three children and, ultimately, my only job is to be a role model to them. I didn’t mean to do Bake Off, I certainly didn’t get into it to win. And when I won I didn’t do so to become a role model. It just happened.” What actually happened was that Nadiya’s off-the-cuff winning speech sent her words viral.
“If you had asked me two or three years ago I’d have told you I just want to look after the family and bake. I didn’t want to talk about myself or about my religion – that’s changed for me. I am a Muslim, a British Bangladeshi woman of colour. And I feel I have a responsibility to the younger generation.” Nadiya lacked a role model growing up, her mother being more traditional. “I just had to help myself.
“It scares me because when you are in the public eye you are under constant scrutiny; what you wear, if you’ve put on a bit of weight, everything is magnified. It’s lovely to be a role model but I never claim to be a perfect version of myself, that I don’t shout or have bad days or get angry sometimes.
“I just have to take this on, because if I don’t do it, who will? There are many people who have had that responsibility and felt it’s too much. And it is too much sometimes. I have people who say I am not representing Muslims properly or Bangladeshis properly. With any group there are unspoken rules, and as a British woman growing up in a Bangladeshi home in Luton I don’t know what those unspoken rules are. They are so blurred.”
A week before our lunch I had attended, along with a thousand other fans, a talk given by Nadiya and Emma Freud at the Royal Festival Hall. The conversation went from cake to bullying and back to cake. She admitted she doesn’t eat much cake. She makes it for Adbal and her kids. Knowing that, I still insist on baking for her (a ginger cake we later pack up into boxes for the family). As I slice through the lemon icing into the pear and ginger crumbs beneath, I suddenly feel self-conscious.
For someone who puts family and faith first, who writes both successful cookbooks and children’s stories, does cookery demonstrations to anything up to 3,000 people at a time, I would have thought there was little time for anything else. Despite having no help at home, Nadiya seems unfazed by such an idea. She would certainly, I suggest, be a refreshing guest on Question Time, and she positively relishes the idea of a bushtucker trial with Ant and Dec.
Bake Off was the most extraordinary idea, a programme where viewers were asked to watch a room full of people making cakes for an hour each week. I doubt it would be commissioned now. Too gentle, too calm, not enough conflict. But if the programme’s viewers hadn’t already fallen in love with her over the eight butter- and sugar-laden episodes, they did so as she gave her tearful and off-the-cuff winning speech, which was humble, charming and yet now thoroughly empowered. “I’m never going to put boundaries on myself again. I’m never going to say I can’t do it. I can and I will,” she said, while Mary Berry wiped tears from her cheek.
And with that, Nadiya slips away back to Abdal and the kids, my ginger cake in hand, and I scrape burned rice from the bottom of the pan. OFM
The Hopes and Triumphs of the Amir Sisters by Nadiya Hussain is published on 23 January (HQ, £8.99)
Nadiya’s grandmama’s curry
From my travels through Thailand this is a recipe that has stayed with me – it’s fragrant, creamy and spicy, warming and delicious. I don’t know whose grandmother started this, but whoever she is, we are thankful, because it is one of the best things ever to pass my lips. The paste is pretty versatile. It is a great base for any curry; be adventurous with the protein you choose – fish, lamb or chunks of good hearty vegetables.
For the curry paste
desiccated coconut 150g
garlic 3 whole bulbs, cloves peeled
ginger 250g, peeled and chopped
fresh red chillies 120g, roughly chopped
lemongrass 9 sticks
ground turmeric 5 tsp
salt 4 tbsp
vegetable oil 300ml (you may need more)
For the curry
desiccated coconut 100g
curry paste 4 tbsp (see above) per 500ml water
garlic paste 2 tbsp
ginger paste 2 tbsp
coconut cream 250ml
water about 1.5 litres
chicken 1 whole, skin removed
cornflour 2 tbsp
baby corn 200g, halved lengthways
fresh coriander a large handful, chopped
limes cut into quarters
Start by making the paste. Toast the 150g of desiccated coconut until very brown. Put it into a blender with the peppercorns, and blend until the peppercorns are broken down. Add the garlic, ginger, chillies, lemongrass, turmeric, salt and oil. Blend till you have a smooth paste. If it isn’t moving, scrape the sides down and add some more oil until it does.
Transfer the paste to a large jar. This makes a large amount, and it will keep in the fridge for 6 months.
To make the curry, put the 100g of desiccated coconut into a large pan and toast until dark brown. Take off the heat and stir in the paste, then add the garlic paste, ginger paste and the coconut cream and mix really well.
Add the whole chicken to the pan and pour over the water – you need enough to come about three-quarters of the way up the chicken. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and leave the whole thing to cook gently for 1 hour.
Take off the heat and use a slotted spoon to remove the chicken, gently, as it will be falling apart. Place it on a large plate or a board. While the chicken is cooling slightly, turn up the heat under the liquid in the pan and boil rapidly for 10-15 minutes.
Pull the chicken off the bones, using two forks as it will be hot, and discard the bones. Put the chicken back in the pan and cook slowly for another 30 minutes with the lid off.
Meanwhile, cook enough rice for 6 people.
Mix the cornflour with 3 tablespoons of cold water in a small bowl, then stir it into the sauce for the last 5 minutes of cooking, together with the mangetout and baby corn.
Put the rice on a platter and pour all the chicken on top. Sprinkle with chopped coriander and serve with wedges of lime.
Leftovers can be frozen in a tub or freezer bag.
From Time to Eat by Nadiya Hussain (Michael Joseph, £20)
Nigel’s pear and ginger cake
My favourite cake, baked for Nadiya and Abdal.
For the pears
agave or golden syrup 1 tbsp
For the cake
self-raising flour 250g
ground ginger 2 level tsp
mixed spice ½ tsp
ground cinnamon ½ tsp
bicarbonate of soda 1 tsp
salt a pinch
agave or golden syrup 200ml
dark muscovado 125g
eggs 2 large
For the icing
icing sugar 250g
lemon juice 3 tbsp
preserved ginger in syrup 3 knobs
crystilised roses 9
poppy seeds 1 tbsp
You will need a square cake tin measuring approximately 22cm
Peel, halve and core the pears, then cut them into 2cm dice. Warm the butter in a shallow, non-stick pan, then add the pears and leave to cook for 10 minutes over a low to moderate heat, until they are pale gold and translucent. Towards the end of their cooking time, add the spoonful of agave or golden syrup. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Line the base and sides of the cake tin with baking parchment.
Set the oven at 180C/gas mark 4.
Sift the flour with the ground ginger, mixed spice, cinnamon, bicarbonate of soda and salt. Pour the syrup into a small saucepan, add the butter and the muscovado and warm over a moderate heat until the butter has melted. When the mixture has simmered for a minute remove from the heat.
Break the eggs into a bowl, add the milk and beat lightly to combine. Pour the butter and syrup mixture into the flour and spices and stir gently until no flour is visible. Mix in the milk and eggs. Fold in the cooked pears and scrape the mixture into the lined cake tin. The pears should sink to the bottom. Slide the cake into the oven and bake for about 35-40 minutes, until it is lightly puffed and spongy to the touch. Leave to cool in the tin.
To make the icing, put the icing sugar into a bowl, then beat in the lemon juice, either with a fork or using a small hand whisk. Take it steady, only using enough to make an icing thick enough that it takes a while to fall from the spoon.
Remove the cake from its tin and peel back the parchment. Trickle the icing over the cake, letting a little run down the sides. When the icing is almost set, add slices of crystallised ginger and the sugared roses and scatter lightly with poppy seeds.
Source: Thanks https://www.theguardian.com/food/2020/jan/19/when-nigel-slater-met-nadiya-hussain-curry-cake