Most people probably hadn’t cried at a cooking programme until Nadiya Hussain made that emotional victory speech on the Great British Bake Off four years ago: “I’m never gonna say, ‘I don’t think I can’. I can and I will,” she said tearfully.
That relatable self-doubt blossoming into confidence pretty much catapulted Hussain into national treasure status. And it’s there that she’s stayed – on TV, releasing cookbooks, children’s books and a novel, proving that yes, she really can. It’s doubly impressive because she has three young children and recently spoke publicly about struggling with anxiety and panic disorder. What’s more, in the crowded space of celebrity chefs, women of colour aren’t exactly plentiful.
“Growing up, I couldn’t pick up a novel or a cookbook or watch television and see somebody who I related to,” she says, being Luton-born to Bangladeshi parents and Muslim. “So I think its really important that people can say, ‘Actually, she cooks just like us, she eats just like us, she represents us’. It’s saying, ‘I’m here and I can do this and anyone else can’.”
Hussain’s belief that ‘if she can, anyone can’ is really the premise behind her new cookbook too, Time To Eat. Her fourth since winning Bake Off, this no-nonsense, family-orientated collection of recipes shares the approach to cooking that she lives and breathes at home: Time-efficient, money-saving, and with nothing wasted.
Hussain, 34, says her time-efficient methods in the kitchen are the “only reason” she can juggle such a full-on career and manage life with three children – Musa, 12, Dawud, 11, and eight-year-old Maryam – with husband, Abdal.
“You can cook and you can save time and you can eat really well – I think you can manage all of those, and manage a career,” she says. “I’ve done it for the last four years.”
You don’t generally imagine most celebrity chefs budgeting or stretching ingredients for family meals (although they might), which makes Hussain refreshingly normal. “Since I’ve had children, I’ve had to think about budgeting and worrying, ‘Have I got enough buy to buy things?’, worrying about gas bills, things we all face.
“Because I was a very young mum, and we were a really young family, we had to be really time-savvy and learn how to save money properly and eat well at the same time.”
From waste and time-saving recipes – think spicy scrap soup (literally made from vegetable peel) and crustless spinach quiche (because pastry take time), to combinations you’ve never heard of; breakfast trifle, spaghetti hoop fish bake, and marmalade haddock – Hussain’s new book may be practical but her food is still her own unique version of fusion, and always a lot of fun.
“I’m very lucky because I’ve not been bogged down with traditions – I’m Bangladeshi and I’ve learned how to cook Bandladeshi food, but equally I’m British and I’ve never grown up in a traditional British home, so I don’t have those rules.
“My mum hates it,” she adds with a laugh, “that I toss around with her Bandladesh recipes.”
In this health conscious, mum-shaming social media age, it can feel as if we’re bombarded by a narrative of fresh, ‘natural’ food and judgement if we’re doing it wrong.
“I grew up in a working-class family and we didn’t think about organic or fresh vegetables – we ate what we had! We grew up eating offal because it was cheap,” Hussain says.
“There’s nothing wrong with canned potatoes, they’re delicious!” she adds, alluding to social media backlash she received for cooking with them.
Of course, exclusively buying fresh invariably leads to more waste too. “I’m one of six kids and my parents, even to this day, will not waste anything – if they can cook it and eat it, dry it or preserve it, they will. They do not throw anything away,” she says.
“Of all the things my parents have taught me, that has to be one of the best things. If we can save an ingredient that would otherwise have gone in the bin, we should find joy out of that.”
So, to help avoid waste, the freezer is used with military planning in the Hussain household. “My husband has an audit. He says, ‘Oh I know what’s in the second drawer from the top’. I used to laugh at him and tell him that was silly but it’s actually really clever.”
And let’s face it, most freezers are probably acutely under-utilised. “We’re using electricity to have that thing plugged in, so it’s far more energy-efficient to actually fill it with things – so let’s put meals in there and use it properly!”
It might not sound glamorous or worth showing off on Instagram, but cooking with canned food (“Pre-cooked so it says money on the gas bill”), heating in the microwave (“It’s got a bad rep but it really does save time”) and buying frozen (“Very nutritious, frozen straight away, and cheap to buy”), makes a lot of sense for busy working parents, who want home-cooked family meals every night.
“The more you cook like this, the more you free up evenings of cooking. Which means you’ll have a week’s worth of dinners in your freezer, without even really realising it,” Hussain says.
Naturally, her children have grown up to be adventurous eaters. “Ask what their favourite thing to eat is and they’ll tell you tripe or cow’s tongue,” says Hussain – and they often make her peanut and broccoli chicken bake themselves.
“They’re becoming more confident in the kitchen, my little girl loves baking. The kitchen is as much theirs as it is mine.”
So do the kids cook more than her husband? “Oh my goodness, hands down! We’ve been married 15 years and he might have cooked twice. It helps that he’s good-looking!”
Time To Eat by Nadiya Hussain, photography by Chris Terry, is published by Michael Joseph, priced £20. Available now. The accompanying Nadiya’s Time To Eat series is currently airing on BBC Two and available on iPlayer.