Bake Off winner Nadiya Hussain on being empowered by pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia and new cookbook Nadiya’s Simple Spices

Completing a religious pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia was an “empowering” experience for TV cook and author, Nadiya Hussain.“We were doing 40,000 steps a day for 10 days, and it was 49 degrees,” the former Great British Bake Off winner says of the trip to Mecca with her husband Abdal and three children – sons Musa, 17, and Dawud, 16, and daughter Maryam, 12.

“It’s really empowering to realise that you can do something that you didn’t think you could do in the first place. It was pretty special for me as a woman to go out there and to realise my own strength.”

Known as the Umrah (or ‘lesser pilgrimage’, as opposed to the once-in-a-lifetime Hajj), the Islamic ritual sees Muslims visiting the holy city of Mecca, home to the sacred Kaaba mosque.

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“We walk around that seven times and then you do lots of prayers, and then you run between two iconic mountains where a mother ran across because she was looking for water for her child,” Hussain explains.

Nadiya Hussain. Credit: Chris Terry/PA.Nadiya Hussain. Credit: Chris Terry/PA.
Nadiya Hussain. Credit: Chris Terry/PA.

The heat and physical exertion left the Luton-born cook, formerly of Yorkshire, feeling “bewildered” at times.

“But I suppose that is the purpose of a pilgrimage, to be dusty and disheveled and feel close to God, and I think that is something we definitely felt.”

To complete the pilgrimage, at the end of the trip her sons shaved their heads, which was a “really big” deal for the teenagers.

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“Watching them make such a big sacrifice was a really proud moment for me, because they struggled, but they did it,” says Hussain, 38, who was awarded an MBE in 2020 for services to broadcasting and the culinary arts.

Nadiya Hussain, who used to live in Leeds, poses for her new cookbook. Picture: Chris Terry/PA.Nadiya Hussain, who used to live in Leeds, poses for her new cookbook. Picture: Chris Terry/PA.
Nadiya Hussain, who used to live in Leeds, poses for her new cookbook. Picture: Chris Terry/PA.

After returning to the UK, a couple of weeks later the family jetted off to Italy for a holiday inspired by daughter Maryam’s studies – and the local foodie delights.

“We climbed Mount Vesuvius then came back down and visited Pompeii,” says Hussain, who won the 2015 series of Bake Off.

“And we a lot of pizza and pasta. By the end of it my husband said ‘I think I’m just made of dough on the inside!'”

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When she moved from Luton to Leeds after marrying Abdal in 2005, he learnt of her desire to bake and bought her an oven. She learnt he loved cake – so she baked for him every day.

Saag aloo chicken jalfrezi by Nadiya Hussain. Picture: Chris Terry/PA.Saag aloo chicken jalfrezi by Nadiya Hussain. Picture: Chris Terry/PA.
Saag aloo chicken jalfrezi by Nadiya Hussain. Picture: Chris Terry/PA.

Hussain was living in the West Yorkshire city and studying to become a social worker when her husband printed out a Bake Off application form in 2015 and suggested she apply.

That was despite suffering with panic disorder for more than 20 years – experiencing debilitating anxiety and panic attacks - which is something she has been open about since becoming the show’s champion.

But she has come a long way since winning that sixth series and, rounding off an adventurous summer this year, the TV cook – who has had series broadcast on the BBC, ITV and Netflix – paid a flying visit to California for a showbiz event.

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“They had a pop-up restaurant in LA near Beverly Hills where you could go and experience the food that you see on Netflix,” says Hussain, who now lives back down south.

“I literally went out there to spend one evening saying hi to customers and signing books for them and chatting to them, which was amazing.”

Then it was back to work for the author of children’s books, novels and a memoir, who has just released her eighth cookery book, Nadiya’s Simple Spices.

As the title suggests, Hussain – whose parents were born in Bangladesh – wants to make cooking with spices accessible to anyone who likes a bit of a kick in their cuisine.

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“For anyone who says, ‘Oh, well, it’s alright for you, because you’ve grown up with spices, I’m here to say, ‘Well actually, it doesn’t matter… all you need is eight spices and you can make every single recipe in this book.”

Four whole spices (cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks, bay leaves and fennel seeds) plus four ground (turmeric, chilli powder, cumin and curry powder) make up the essential eight you need for everything, from breakfast loaves and pancakes to quick curries, tasty noodles and (of course) some brilliant bakes.

“They are the eight spices that I use at home, all day, every day – it was a no-brainer,” says Hussain, who wants to discourage readers from wasting money on a wealth of ingredients that will languish on kitchen shelves for years to come.

Well aware of the ongoing cost-of-living crisis, the mum-of-three empathises with families who are struggling financially.

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“Up to the point that I did Bake Off, we only had one person in the house working – we lived solely on my husband’s wages,” she recalls.

“It was hard when we had a young family and a lot of your money is spent on nappies and baby food.

“We know what it’s like to have 25p left on the gas meter and 20 quid left in my wallet, thinking, ‘How do I make this stretch to the rest of the week?’ So yeah, I totally get it.”

After becoming arguably the most successful Bake Off contestant ever, the bestselling author with 872,000 Instagram followers and an MBE to her name remains a frugal foodie.

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“Even though now I’m financially comfortable and I’m able to waste if I wanted to or buy whatever I want, I would never waste,” says Hussain.

“It’s not how I’ve been raised and I never want to change that. You will find me in the yellow sticker aisle – I’m always there.”

- Nadiya’s Simple Spices by Nadiya Hussain is published by Penguin Michael Joseph, priced £26. Photography by Chris Terry. Available now.