Nadiya Hussain isn't trying to blend into the food world anymore: "Why not just create space?"

On "Salon Talks" the food star dives into baking, identity and why she doesn't throw anything away in the kitchen

By Ashlie D. Stevens
November 14, 2020 10:30PM (UTC)
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Nadiya Hussain, author of "Time to Eat: Delicious Meals for Busy Lives: A Cookbook" (Clarkson Potter)

From her first appearance on the sixth season of "The Great British Bake Off," Nadiya Hussain emerged as a fan favorite. With her cheeky asides to the camera ("I'd sooner have another baby. I really would," she famously quipped during a soufflé round) and undeniable prowess in the kitchen, she emerged from the season as both a winner and a GIF-able star. 

In the five years since, Hussain's career has exploded to include her own cooking shows, a memoir, several documentaries and cookbooks, including her newest, "Time to Eat: Delicious Meals for Busy Lives," a companion to her hit Netflix series, now available in the United States. 

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Through it all, she has continued to break barriers in a food media landscape that still remains incredibly white and male — and hopes to help others do the same. 

"The reality is that I'm never going to blend into this industry," she told Salon. "I'm a five-foot, brown, Muslim woman in an industry where there is no way I'm going to blend in, so why even try? Why even try? Why not just create space?" 

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Watch Hussain's interview with "Salon Talks" or read the transcript below to learn more about her rules for the kitchen, what ingredients she thinks are overlooked most in baking, and her pantry staples. 

Before we jump into some of your projects, let's talk a little bit about how cooking has changed for everybody over the past several months. And I actually wanted to start by talking  about physical kitchen space. You've mentioned in interviews in the past that the kitchen that you first shared with your husband was on the smaller side. And I think now that people are cooking at home more, they may be coming up against space restrictions they didn't even know they had. So I was curious if you had any tips for people who are wanting to make the most of the kitchen space that they do have?

One of the things that I learned once I had children is that it's not about the space. It's about how you use it. I've gone from having a much smaller kitchen, tiny kitchen, to a much bigger kitchen. And even then, I always look at it and think, "Oh, I could do with some more space." And the truth is, it's not about the space. It's about using it properly and actually organizing yourself so that you know where everything is. And for me, it's all about organization. I think that's the key.

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Now I have a bigger [kitchen] than what I had 15 years ago, but my kitchen still feels really small sometimes because my kids are getting bigger. So it feels like the space is really small, but actually it's all about organization. It's about labeling, putting baskets in places, on shelves where you know you can kind of access things really quickly. 

And I find when I label things and I can see things running out — especially whether it's spices or where my lentils and pasta and things sit — when I can see things running out, I can just quickly put it on a list and I can go off and buy it.

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I think if you have space that can be utilized by anything, what we tend to do is we buy and we fill the space, and we don't really know what we're buying and things get pushed to the back. And so what I like to do is have clear, defined spaces for certain things — be it my pots, my pans, my lids, pasta, lentils, cans. Everything has a space and it's labeled. I think if you use that space properly and you know where everything goes, you can really utilize that space without worrying about it being too small.

That's a great point. So, just speaking of spending more time at home, you've spoken openly about struggling with anxiety. There's that great BBC documentary that you did, "Anxiety and Me." And I know for a lot of people, myself included, this is a really rough time for mental health. I think that feeding yourself can sometimes drop to the bottom of the to-do list, or feeding yourself well, potentially, can drop. What would you say to those people? What advice do you have?

I'm just like everybody else. For me as a mom — I'll feed the cat before I feed the kids, and then I'll feed the kids and then my husband. So, everybody gets fed and I'm not on my list of priorities. I'm definitely not high up there on the list. So, one of the things I like to do is wake up very early and have some time to myself. By allowing myself allocated times in the day, that's where I find I eat properly and eat well and look after myself. Whether it's having a quick lunch and going for a half an hour walk, that's really important time. 

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I tend to wake up much earlier than the children because as soon as they're up, they're on my list of things to sort out and make sure that they're all fixed and ready for school and lunches are done and all of that, so I drop straight down to the bottom of the list. But when I wake up first thing in the morning, I don't have to worry about anybody. I can wake up, tippy-toe downstairs, make a cup of coffee, and just sit there and just kind of enjoy that moment, maybe even make myself some breakfast, some porridge, wait for them to come down. By then, I'll have fed myself, feel nourished, feel well, and I'm ready to go. So, I think give yourself pockets of time.

I love that. So, I was curious what your current refrigerator and pantry staples are like. Because I think people are doing sort of big shops now, and then they're not going to the store as often. So what are some things that you keep in the house to ensure that you can put together quick, healthy meals?

I always have dried lentils. I always have rice and pasta because they're really good basics, but I always like to have tinned fish because you can quickly add that to a tomato sauce and then add something, just to bulk up a pasta. I always have tinned beans because, again, they're very quick and easy, and always have dried herbs. We go [to the supermarket] every other week now, so we try and eliminate how many times we go to the supermarket. And often we can't get herbs, so what I like to do is always have dried herbs in the cupboard so I don't feel like I'm missing out.

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That makes sense. Well, this ties really nicely into your book, "Time to Eat." I kind of feel like the backbone of that book, which is being released in the U.S. this November, are smart culinary shortcuts. How did you get to a point in your own cooking where you embraced shortcuts? What was that process like for you?

I think growing up in an immigrant household, where we were going between eating English food at school and eating Bangladeshi food at home, we were always — well, I grew up in a working class family. We didn't have lots of money, so we would often go to the butchers and they would be throwing away the offal and we'd bring that back home, free, so we would eat the offal. And I think growing up in a house where we had to save money and we had to watch our pockets and make sure we weren't spending too much money, I grew up with that need to always save money and not waste. I think it's always about not wasting.

We can all be a little bit fancy sometimes, and occasionally I might buy some lobster tails if I feel like we deserve it or we should have it. But otherwise, I'm always kind of budgeting and making sure that we're not spending too much money. But I think for us growing up it was all about not wasting, and I think that's something that's really important these days. That's really important for us to do these days, and that's something that I do. And I always try and impart that knowledge to my children, especially now, in the last seven or eight months. 

Your book opens with several rules that you abide by in your kitchen, and one of them was "don't throw anything away." I was curious how that plays out in your kitchen currently. What are some things that you feel like people might be throwing away that you would urge them to kind of hold back?

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If you're peeling parsnips or carrots, people will often throw away the peelings, or potato peelings. But there's a recipe in the book for scrap soup, which is basically all the peelings that you would normally throw away — so your potato, your carrot, your parsnips, all of that, celery ends, all of it, it goes into a big pot with lots of herbs and spices and you cook it up. And that is essentially something that you would have thrown in the bin that you have now made an entire hearty, autumn soup out of. And that, to me, that's how I cook. I think it's really important. I think once you get the taste for not throwing things away, you realize that everything's an ingredient, and as long as it doesn't poison you, why not, right?

For instance, herbs. Often we buy loads of herbs. I buy too many herbs, pop them in the fridge, and then they sit there and get wilty and really sad, and you're like, "Oh, what do I do with them?" Well, all you do is you put them in the microwave for 10 seconds and they dry instantly and then you just kind of rub them and they break up and then you pop them into a jar. I don't even buy dried herbs anymore because I wait for my herbs to get sad and wilted, and then I just dry them.

This ties to one of your other rules, which is about kind of giving yourself permission to use the microwave in the kitchen. I feel like, at least in U.S. culture, people have kind of moved away from the microwave, and I like that you're advocating for bringing it back because it makes things so much more simple. What inspired you to include that rule in your book?

Well, I've always had a microwave, and with young children, sometimes it's the fast solution to get something done quickly. And also, I grew up in a working class home. Any way where we could save money, whether that was on the gas bill or the electricity bill, that made all the difference. Especially as a young mum — I had three kids under the age of four, so I was always trying to find ways of saving money on the gas and the bills and things like that.

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So, the microwave saves time and it saves money. Where to bake a potato in the oven can take up to 40 minutes, you can bake it in the microwave for five. Not only do you save money, but you also save time. I think it's all about balance. And I'm not saying that you should microwave a potato all-day, every day. I'm just saying that you can do it occasionally and there's nothing wrong with that. I think there's a lot of snobbery and pretentiousness where food is concerned, and that doesn't sit well with me because, for me, food is to be enjoyed and sometimes we want to eat, but we want to eat fast and that's OK.

Right. Well, and to that end, one of the other things that I really appreciate about this book are the little icons next to certain recipes so you can tell, oh, this is going to freeze well, or this is good for batching up and making double portions. How often do you rely on batch cooking in your real life kitchen, in your home?

I literally batch cook every day. 

When I do a big pot of something — whether it's a curry or a stew or a bolognese — what I like to do is I always like to feed the kids with one lot and then put one in the freezer. The rule is, at the moment, I'll put one meal into the freezer a week, so by the end of the month, I have four meals. If I go away for four days, the kids will have four meals, and that's without even trying. It's not like I had to take off a Sunday afternoon to cook four meals. It's just without trying.

I think when you get into the mindset of just cooking a little bit more and putting it aside and freezing it, it becomes natural and it doesn't become a chore anymore. It doesn't become a task for a Sunday morning or a Sunday afternoon. That's where I wholeheartedly believe that if you batch cooking without really thinking about it, what you do is, effectively, you save time for yourself.

In the book, there's this really helpful guide for freezing individual ingredients. What are some things that you have, like individual ingredients, freezing in your own freezer right now that people may not think that they can freeze?

I like to freeze onions because onions are one of those things that I always have at home, but sometimes I just cannot be bothered. If I'm honest, I'm lazy. I cannot be bothered to chop them. It's like, "Oh, do I have to put onions in?" And sometimes you do. 

So, what I like to do is freeze onions in a bag. I chop them up and then I freeze them, and also spinach. Lots of people think that you have to blanch spinach and then put it in a bag and then freeze it. You don't! 

You literally buy the spinach that you buy in a bag, stick that in the freezer. Just as you buy it, stick it in the freezer. Literally, then take it out once it's frozen, and smash it all up like that. You just smash the whole lot up and then you get crumbly bits of spinach and that's it. So, it's little things like that that really save on going out [and] shopping, and then having just quick ingredients.

I always have ginger, I always have garlic, and I always have fresh whole frozen chiles so that at when I've made a really yummy spaghetti dish and I want a chile here, I just grate it on top. 

One of the recipes from the book and the television show that I really loved was the peanut butter and jelly sheet pan pancake. For people that haven't seen it, it's exactly what it sounds like. It's this massive pancake baked in a sheet pan with these amazing swirls of peanut butter and jelly. And I love it because pancakes can feel like kind of a production, especially when it's just myself or just two people. What inspired you to create this dish? 

A lot of my recipes are inspired by my children and the fact that I love cooking, but I also really like spending time with them, so I'm always looking for ways of giving them what they love, but a little bit faster. 

So my kids, we have pancakes every Saturday morning. Whether they're making them, I'm making them — someone's making pancakes. Sometimes our Saturday mornings can get really, really busy because they've got all sorts of different classes and things to go to on a Saturday morning. It just kind of came to me. It's like, "Let's just bake it in the oven." And so I did this recipe.

What I love about this recipe is that you make a double-batch of batter, and then you freeze one batch in the freezer so that next Saturday you don't have to think about making the batter. You just defrost it and it's done. And then the other batch, you just literally put in a sheet pan and then you dollop over peanut butter, jam, swirl it over, bake it in the oven. Easy-peasy, none of this standing there. Because what happens is whoever's making pancakes, that's the person that eats last and they eat the last pancakes, the cold ones that nobody wants.

It's absolutely true. So currently in my pantry, I have the ingredients for your masala porridge, which I'm really excited to try. I think people tend to veer sweet with their oats. What inspired you to go towards the spice direction?

Eating spicy food in a Bangladeshi home is completely normal. And where I know there are lots of people with a Western palate would say, "Oh, gosh, I couldn't have garlic first thing in the morning, no way, absolutely not." I just think, come on. It's about making it different. We don't have to always have cereals and pancakes and toast. We can have something savory. And I think it's just being proud of where I'm from and the way we eat. And actually masala porridge isn't something that is common in Bangladesh, but eating spicy food for breakfast is, so I kind of wanted to marry the two together.

I also really love the dessert section of this book, which has great recipes. There are the apple palm pies, and then there's the strawberry milkshake funnel cakes, which are very exciting to me because it all feels really doable. And I think that baking can sometimes feel intimidating for people. What considerations did you make when putting this book together to ensure that it was accessible for just your average home baker?

Whenever I write a cookbook, I always make sure that if there's an ingredient that I think is slightly obscure, maybe, somebody might struggle to get it, what I tend to do is have a list of these ingredients after I've written one chapter and, if I'm slightly unsure about the ingredient, I will take the list of ingredients to four big, local supermarkets, maybe six local supermarkets, and I will go to each one and make sure I can find them in each supermarket. 

And if I can't find it in the supermarket, I just take it out of the recipe entirely and change it with something that I can. Because I think often people open up a book and they look at the ingredients and they think, "Oh, there's too many ingredients in there, or there are ingredients in there that I don't recognize or that I'm unsure about." So what I like to do is use ingredients that lots of people recognize and that are popular, but also ones that are accessible. And I hope that's one of the things that people have noticed when they cook from the book.

So many people have taken up baking, I feel like, over the past several months, now that we've been home-bound. Banana bread had its moment, sourdough had its moment. What are you baking in your own home right now?

Usually, apart from when I'm testing recipes, I'm baking when I've got too much of something in the house. We had a bit of blueberry jam leftover and I thought, "Oh, well, it's kind of not enough for everybody," so I thought, "right, I'm going to put that aside." And I had something like eight or 10 limes in the house . . . they've just gathered over time. So I made an enormous lime and vanilla pound cake with some blueberry jam rippled through it, and then I made a lime curd. So that's what I've been baking. 

Usually my baking is all about using stuff up. It's very rare that I go out and get particular ingredients to bake something. It's usually a case of, "What have I got? Let's quickly make something."

You also recently released your book, "Nadiya Bakes," which I love because it includes a lot of flavors in baked goods that I think tend to fall outside the realm of what people typically reach for when it comes to picking up stuff for baked goods. So, obviously there's chocolate and sugar and that sort of thing, but there are also some flavors that were interesting to me. I was curious what flavors you feel like are under-utilized in baked goods or things that you wish people would maybe reach for a little more often.

I think spices. I think lots of people are afraid of spices. So, for me, when I'm baking I love to use [them]. White chocolate and black pepper work really well together. It just really does balance the sweetness of the white chocolate. So things like black pepper or Sichuan peppers, or even turmeric. I've got a recipe in there for turmeric and ginger diamonds, in the book. Turmeric is often associated as a savory flavor, but so often when my kids are sick, I tend to give them a glass of hot milk with half a teaspoon of turmeric and some honey. So, my kids almost associate it more with sweet than they do savory. I think it's turmeric. We should be using more turmeric. Absolutely.

As we've covered in this conversation, your career spans a lot of different things. You've been involved in documentaries. You won a reality TV show. You're involved in cookbooks and television programs. But in a recent Guardian interview, you spoke about how, rather than blending into the industry — which by and large can still feel very white and sometimes very male-centered — you'd like to "create space." I was curious if you could expand upon that a little bit.

It's exactly that. I work in an industry where it is very white and it's very middle-aged man. It's not the kind of industry that, I suppose, for me, going into it, felt like a space that I felt comfortable in because there was nobody like me. So, I think if you'd asked me five years ago, "Actually, how do you feel about this?" I would've said, "You know what, actually? Can we just talk about the cooking and the baking?" Because talking about something like that feels way too difficult. And you almost don't want to highlight it because it's scary to highlight something that is clearly a problem within the television and publishing industry.

The hope was that over the years that I would just blend in and I could be a part of that world. And the truth is, in some ways, [I'll] never be a part of that world because I am so often quizzed about my race, my religion, my political stance, when people who work in the industry — men who work in the industry — can go about their business and they can cook and bake and work in television and publishing, and nobody will question, "Who's looking after your children at home?" 

I get asked so often, "So, who's looking after your children?" Well, they're not in the street. I have got somebody to look after them and they have a dad. We're so lucky that as a family we work it out, but if that was my husband in my position, nobody would ever, ever ask him, "Who's looking after your children?" 

It's that constant justification of, "What gives you the right to be here?" And so from now on, I've just kind of said to myself, "I'm not going to attempt to blend in," because the reality is that I'm never going to blend into this industry. I'm a five-foot, brown, Muslim woman in an industry where there is no way I'm going to blend in, so why even try? Why even try? Why not just create space? That's what it's all about. 

It's about saying that actually I'm here and I love the job that I do and I'm good at the job that I do, which is something that, as women, we're not very good at just saying. There's nothing wrong with that. We have to always be very humble, and actually you can be humble and be really proud of what you do and believe in yourself at the same time.

It's taken a long time for me to actually believe the words that come out of my mouth. And so rather than blending in, it's about creating space because I know I have a responsibility to my children to create that space for them, no matter what industry they work in. And granted, I'm not going to knock down every single hurdle for them, but I'd like to think that as their mother working in an industry that wasn't really made for her, I'm knocking a few down at least.

Absolutely. So I think most people came to you through "The Great British Bake Off." And we're in the middle of the new season on Netflix here in the U.S. I was curious if you watch the program now.

Well, I have to say I do watch it, but I haven't this year just because I've been so busy with the children, and just generally in life, it's just been really, really busy. So I haven't really watched it, but we have recorded it and we are going to binge watch it, perhaps on the weekend. Perhaps. We'll see.

And then a final, big, big question: Why do you cook?

I cook because it's slightly selfish. I cook because it makes me happy.. I love the feeling of cooking and sharing with other people, which is lovely, which for me is the byproduct. The cooking is the byproduct. The sharing is the byproduct. I genuinely cook for me because I love the joy I feel for cooking and to be creative and to be able to make something that makes me really happy and then to be able to share it. I cook because I love my family. I cook because I get to share it. I cook because it's my happy place.


Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is a staff writer at Salon, specializing in culture.

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