What a difference a raspberry millefeuille can make. One year ago, Nadiya Hussain was so lacking in self-confidence that she couldn’t bring herself to use public transport. After winning The Great British Bake Off last October, however, she is everywhere. “I’m never going to put boundaries on myself ever again,” she said in her victory speech – reducing Mary Berry and 15 million viewers to tears in the process – and the 31-year-old mother-of-three has been true to her word, making a cake for the Queen’s 90th birthday, gossiping on Loose Women and contravening the no-selfies rule at Shoreditch House. She is now a rebel.
“I’ve literally pinched myself black and blue these past few months,” she tells me when we meet at the oh-so-hip east London members’ club. (It’s her agent who’s a member, not Nadiya, in case you’re worried for her.) Life is a whir of photoshoots, signings, opportunities.
You can see why everyone loves Nadiya (a few Islamophobes and misogynists on social media notwithstanding). Conservative types applaud her
family values and quiet
patriotism, liberal types admire her rebellious streak and upending of Muslim stereotypes, while anyone can warm to her sharp wit and, of course, her cookery skills.
But she is also aware that this is her moment. “There’s a sell-by date that comes with Bake Off,” she says, referring to the next set of bakers who will emerge in a few months. “Once it was finished, I knew that I had a year. But this is what I love doing. I love cooking, baking, making people happy.”
She has just filmed her own two-part cookery show-cum-travelogue, due later this year, and is working on a novel, having signed a three-book deal with Harlequin. In the meantime there’s Nadiya’s Kitchen. Her first book is not baking-focused, as you might expect, but a collection of the recipes that she cooks for friends and family.
She has pitched the recipes at your average home cook. Her favorite is mango and pasrsley pavlova – “you wouldn’t think they work, but they really do” – and there’s a cod and clementine curry, which sounds a bit avant garde but was actually her grandma’s recipe.
Mostly, her zingy, modern recipes mark a generational shift from her parents, who ran a curry house in Luton and never used their oven.
“I grew up in a culture where rice and curry was a staple, twice a day, seven days a week. I know now that’s not good for you – and it doesn’t give you much room for creativity. I don’t feed my kids that all the time, much to my mum’s disdain.”
She fasts regularly, not only during Ramadan but occasionally in accordance with an Islamic version of the 5:2 diet. “It’s recommended to fast in Islam two days a week, Monday and Thursday. It means that your system gets a rest. Within Islam, gluttony is frowned upon. There’s a rule that a third of your stomach should be food, a third should be water and the other third should be empty. I like that: you don’t need to eat to the point where you’re bursting at the seams.”
As one of very few hijab-wearing women in the mainstream media, she has been adopted as a positive role model for young Muslim women. Does she find this burdensome – patronizing even? “It’s nice. I didn’t expect that to happen,” she says. “When I started out, I was very aware that I was the only one in a headscarf. But that’s the same in every situation. And there is a stigma attached to arranged marriages and being a housewife, certainly. What really came out of Bake Off was how much I’d changed over the ten weeks. It was my confidence.”
While she often makes jokes at the expense of her husband, Abdal, she pays tribute to his hands-on approach to parenting (he works from home, which is now Milton Keynes, as an IT consultant) and his support for her. He records even her tiniest TV appearance. She stresses that there was never any coercion in her former role as a housewife.
“Staying at home with my three children was a decision I made with my husband. I was lucky that he earned just enough to allow me to do that. Not everyone has that luxury.”
In fact, it was Abdal who first suggested she enter the competition. “He said, ‘I just feel like you need to do something for you.’ I remember the person I was before Bake Off – and I know now why my husband was so desperate for me to do it. I was the most scared person in the world. I didn’t know how to use a train. I’d pretend to forget my glasses so I couldn’t read the signs and then I’d say, ‘Oh no, we have to go home now.’ Now? I feel like that person doesn’t even exist any more. I’m not scared of making mistakes. I’m not scared of anything.”