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The Subtle Significance of ‘Nadiya’s Time to Eat’

Netflix’s newest cooking show starring ‘Great British Bake Off’ winner Nadiya Hussain is an antidote to the issues currently wracking food entertainment—even if it doesn’t announce itself as such

Netflix/Ringer illustration

Like many, I turn to food TV for escape. Lately, however, the food world has been less a distraction from society’s ills than a prime example of them.

The controversy that’s engulfed Condé Nast brand Bon Appétit and its massively popular YouTube channel is complex and best outlined by reporters like Business Insider’s Rachel Premack. To put it mildly, the ongoing national conversation about race and racism has spilled over into what was once marketed as an inclusive yet aspirational workplace. A soothing guide to sticky buns is now a stark reminder that many nonwhite staffers have never been compensated for their video work. Even if you wanted to keep visiting the test kitchen, many stars have committed to not appearing on camera until existing inequities are fixed and future ones are avoided. “I hate being woke,” one TikTok user sagely observed. “All I wanna do is eat Taco Bell and watch Bon Appétit videos on YouTube and I can’t anymore.”

There’s still a need to find the precious hit of food-induced serotonin—particularly one that’s a symbol of progress rather than a long-held cycle of underrepresentation. To fill that void there’s Nadiya’s Time to Eat, an effective distraction from the surrounding chaos—both elsewhere in food and in the world at large—that is also a subtle, satisfying antidote to the diversity issues currently plaguing the food world, at least for a short while.

The namesake host of Nadiya’s Time to Eat is Nadiya Hussain, the 2015 winner of The Great British Bake Off. Time to Eat was released earlier this spring, and it isn’t Hussain’s first follow-up to her Bake Off success, but it is the first to be widely accessible to American viewers thanks to its distribution on Netflix. (Hussain’s prior series were native to the BBC, which also coproduces Time to Eat.) Loosely based on Hussain’s cookbook of the same name, published last year, Time to Eat builds on the Bake Off phenomenon even more directly than clear imitators like last month’s The Big Flower Fight. But in its casual centering of a voice rarely handed the spotlight in her industry, Time to Eat recalls a different Netflix hit: Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat.

The actual subject matter of Time to Eat is straightforward: quick, weeknight-friendly meals, often achieved through a variety of “cheats” and shortcuts. The premise invokes the work of Semi-Homemade maven Sandra Lee, though a friend compared the effect to that of a “British Rachael Ray.” A mother of three, Hussain was a full-time homemaker before her breakout success on Bake Off, and Time to Eat’s recipes are explicitly targeted towards parents, professionals, and other “time-poor” home cooks, one of whom she travels to tutor in person every episode. The dishes themselves are unfussy and often proudly all over the place: a fish bake fleshed out with “spaghetti hoops”; a mash-up of everything from gnocchi to green curry; falafel fashioned out of baked beans.

To a stateside audience, Time to Eat has much of the same appeal as Bake-Off, which Netflix helped to popularize as a form of low-stakes cultural anthropology. There’s the cutesy slang, teaching in context what it means to be “scrummy,” “cheeky,” or “full on.” (Or that what the British call “French toast” involves a lot of ham and cheese.) There are also, inevitably, the sweets, which may be streamlined but remain a focus, at one point earning an entire episode. Bake Off’s elaborate feats have merely been swapped out for quick-assemble trifles and one-pan cookies.

But Time to Eat’s greatest distinction is one that’s largely unstated, but powerful. “I didn’t grow up watching Muslim women on television. I didn’t grow up watching Bangladeshi women of color on television,” Hussain told The Cut in an interview in April. “To be able to do a cookery show and be this British, Bangladeshi, Muslim woman of color—that’s a big deal.” Time to Eat is explicitly British; once an episode, Hussain takes a field trip to the manufacturing site of an iconic British ingredient, from Marmite to golden syrup. (Also, Heinz baked beans; Mad Men may have left Netflix, but some things never change.) That the BBC’s latest standard-bearer of British cuisine, riffing on Scotch eggs and fish ’n’ chips with practice eggs, is also the child of South Asian immigrants is allowed to speak for itself.

Hussain’s background is nonetheless woven, quietly yet perceptibly, throughout Time to Eat. Hussain frequently references childhood trips to her grandfather’s farm back in Bangladesh. A croque monsieur spin is seasoned with turmeric, because Hussain’s mother always had it around the house. While learning about the origins of yeast extract, Hussain expresses relief that beer’s distant cousin is nonalcoholic because her household keeps halal. (In the months since production, Hussain’s Instagram has filled up with updates on celebrating Ramadan in quarantine.) None of these anecdotes are dwelled on; they’re merely an integrated part of the show’s point of view, as vital as the Hussain kitchen’s bright pastels or the occasional cameos from Nadiya’s husband and kids.

Time to Eat is also deliberate in its choice of costars. Some of Hussain’s mentees are harried moms, the stereotypical audience for advice on fast and cheap home cooking. But a roughly equal number are men, including one dad concerned he’s caving to stereotypical gender roles by not doing enough housework. Hussain bonds with another pupil about South Asian identity, and the pupil’s personal challenges to fit into the mold of the “good Indian girl” before teaching her how to make jackfruit curry. The casting is similar to Nosrat’s deliberate centering of nonwhite women as on-call experts—preserving the template of mouthwatering food TV, but updating its components.

Nadiya’s Time to Eat takes place inside the warm and cheery bubble of much domestic goddess content and keeps it intact. Hussain herself is an ebullient host, always bright-eyed and chipper. Offscreen, however, she’s bluntly honest about the same forces that have spilled over into peers like Bon Appétit. “Just because you don’t experience racism, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist,” Hussain wrote earlier this month. “I have experienced more racism in five years working in the TV/food industry than any other time of my life.” That experience may not make its way into the show, but even knowing it exists makes Time to Eat all the more powerful. Hussain’s show doesn’t pretend there aren’t obstacles to leisure—cooking in her case; watching her cook, in ours. It just knows how to keep them at bay, 30 cheerily competent minutes at a time.