The first time we meet Nadiya Hussain in the “Great British Baking Show” tent, she’s trying to convince the judges that making a cake with green cardamom is a good idea. “Is that the only flavor?” Mary Berry asks, delicately but with enough of a point to convey her skepticism. Paul Hollywood, blunt as always, raises his eyebrows and informs her that the “interesting” choice of cardamom “could be fantastic, or it could be disastrous.” Such intrigued but ultimately wary questions about “exotic” flavors, familiar to most any person of color who’s competed on the show over the years, followed Hussain throughout the season — which she eventually won, with a final “Big Fat British Wedding Cake” showstopper draped in marshmallow fondant and custom sari. (And for the record: Berry and Hollywood ended up loving that first “very clever” cardamom cake.)
Six years later, Hussain is a beloved baking personality unto herself. She’s released several cookbooks, a memoir (“Finding My Voice”), and a series of television shows that see the Muslim mother of three traveling, cooking, and sharing insights with her growing audience. As a host, she’s warm, enthusiastic, patient and down to earth. The sheer astonishment she expressed upon winning her season of “Bake Show” is never too far behind: as she looks into the camera, it’s easy to believe she’s thrilled to be here, whether in the kitchen and on the road, with you. Yes, you!
Hussain’s new series “Nadiya Bakes,” now available in the U.S. on Netflix, sees her embracing her expertise as a star baker. This is in direct contrast to her previous show “Time to Eat with Nadiya,” which is geared more toward helping harried parents who want to cook well and fast. In “Nadiya Bakes,” Hussain explores cakes, biscuits, puddings and chocolates through her own recipes and those of bakers she admires. Hussain alternates teaching baking basics with revamping delicacies that range from treacle anise madeleines, to chicken-stuffed donuts, to a gorgeous “tutti frutti” meringue piled high with dried fruit and chopped pistachios. Each episode, she also makes time to hand the show over to guests such as chocolatier Aneesh Popat, donut shop owner Lungi Mhlanga and mille-feuille magician Ravneet Gill, all of whom put their own spins on the kinds of “classic” pastries and ingredients prized by “Baking Show.” It’s deeply refreshing, and not at all a coincidence, that most of these expert guests are not white.
Many of the featured recipes on “Nadiya Bakes” are for the kinds of “traditional” British desserts that Hussain would’ve been asked to make on “Baking Show.” But just as she did as a contestant, Hussain often finds ways to “twist” them by turning to flavors she grew up loving as a first generation British-Bangladeshi. In the first episode (fittingly called “Classics with a Twist”), she bakes a Victoria sponge infused with mango and coconut, takes a bite, and happily declares it “sunshine in a cake.” Mango, Hussain tells us, is one of her most beloved ingredients, since it reminds her of when her grandfather taught her how to climb mango trees in Bangladesh. So when she walks us through her version of a no-bake Scottish cranachan in a later episode, it’s extra meaningful to watch her fold a bright streak of mango custard into a bowl of cornflakes, before topping it all with a crunch of black pepper and beaming smile.
“Nadiya Bakes” thrives when making the kind of hybrid desserts almost certainly would’ve made Berry and Hollywood do a gently scandalized double take before inevitably conceding that the bakes are to die for. In so doing, Hussain challenges the preconceived notion of what makes something “British” at all, pointing out with her stories and bakes that her experience is just as British as someone like Berry, who has otherwise been the country’s far more typical face of food.
It’s hard to imagine that a show like “Nadiya Bakes” could have existed in the same way even just six years ago when Hussain first appeared on our television screens. Food media on both sides of the Atlantic has been aggressively white overall, with few people of color given the same opportunities as their white counterparts to be visible and excel. Even when “hybrid” cuisine became trendy, it largely appeared to come from white chefs who were discovering “bold new flavors” from outside their own experiences. When I spoke to Padma Lakshmi last summer about her Hulu show “Taste the Nation,” in which she travels through the United States to speak with immigrants about their cultures and food, the longtime “Top Chef” host spoke about how, “as a brown woman in food,” she’s “acutely aware of the biases of big legacy media” that have shortchanged immigrant perspectives for decades. “It’s not fair that some white person discovers turmeric and all of a sudden, [it’s] ‘turmeric lattes for everybody!’” Lakshmi continued. “Immigrant communities have been quietly responsible for a lot of what is cool in this country…they deserve the credit, and deserve to be acknowledged.”
This particular point hit me hard during “Nadiya Bakes,” especially since I watched it shortly after listening to a devastating new “Reply All” series about how consistently “Bon Appetit” has dismissed its non-white employees over the years. In the first episode, released on February 4, chef Sue Li talks about how all the Asian recipes at the time she worked at the magazine were written by white people, while she was tasked with developing recipes for fishsticks and hand pies. Then, Li tells a story about pitching a story about soup dumplings, a food from her childhood that remains close to her heart, only for a white coworker to get the assignment instead. “If it came from an Asian voice, then is it too ‘ethnic’?” Li wonders now. “If it was a white person doing it, then [maybe] it’s an ‘approachable’ meal.”
The concept of what’s “approachable” and what’s not has been weaponized over the years as people of color try to make inroads at traditionally white institutions, where the term always means “approachable to white people.” Watching “Nadiya Bakes” and “Time to Eat,” it’s clear that the shows do strive to be approachable, but in a way that doesn’t cater explicitly to white audiences. When Hussain explains her love of mangoes, she’s doing so just as much for the people who also grew up loving mangoes as those who didn’t. And when she upends recipes for Victorian sponge cakes and cranachan, she’s both proving why they can withstand some “exotic” variation and introducing them to viewers like her, who had no experience of either dessert growing up.
After years of watching the politely bewildered white hosts of “Great British Baking Show” require explanations from people of color for any ingredient stronger than clotted cream, there’s something undeniably satisfying about watching Hussain host her own show in which she can fully own her expertise and background without anyone second guessing it. When she finishes her mango-coconut Victoria sponge, she can present it as “a classic sponge transformed into a spectacular centerpiece” without equivocation, and with the utmost confidence that she’s made something wholly representative of her specific knowledge and taste. Once beloved for being relatably flustered under pressure, Hussain doesn’t need a handshake from Hollywood anymore to prove that she knows what she’s doing.
“Nadiya Bakes” is now available to stream on Netflix.