Imagine being Nadiya Hussain. Imagine getting married at 19 to a man you first meet at your engagement party and then see for the second time on your wedding day.
Imagine being a Yorkshire housewife with an anxiety disorder that gives you regular panic attacks and discovering your husband has entered you for the highest rated TV show in the UK to help you get over them. And now imagine winning that show in front of 15 million people – and, as a consequence, discovering that your baking abilities have been deemed an important step toward shifting stereotypes about the Muslim community and that you have become a symbol of cultural diversity in Britain today.
Nadiya Hussain expected her “shelf life” following The Great British Bake Off to be a few months, possibly a year, before she returned home to a lifetime of being asked by strangers why her face looks vaguely familiar… but it hasn’t turned out that way.
Since her victory in August 2015 she’s written two cookery books, made a documentary tracing her culinary roots in Bangladesh published a novel, baked the Queen’s 90th birthday cake, appeared on Desert Island Discs, begun writing a weekly column in The Times and is now practically a fully qualified National Treasure.
Today, that Treasure is joining me for a picnic. She arrives at my house, early and instantly adorable. She meets my dog Posy, the cats, the tortoise and our new, controversial giant house rabbit, Big Sue. I’m not sure if she actually likes them (nobody likes Big Sue apart from me), but she pats most of them and sits down to chat.
I offer her a piece of home-made cake. “It’s Ramadan, I’m fasting,” she explains. It was my youngest son’s idea and he just did really badly in his Religious Studies exam – I now see why.
Her fourth book is about to be published, to accompany her new BBC1 show Nadiya’s British Food Adventure. In her privileged position as flavour of the year, she could probably have written a book on road-kill recipes and still broken existing records.
But being the most interesting 32-year-old in the UK, she has decided to explore her cultural legacy. “I’m lucky – and I’m also unlucky – that I’m part of lots of different worlds. I’m Bangladeshi, I’m Muslim, I’m British.
“The question I’ve often asked myself is, ‘What is British food?’ For me British food is a korma and Mr Kipling, because my parents are from Bangladesh and my mum didn’t bake, but the interesting thing is everyone seems to have a really colourful answer. And now here I am with a series and a cook book, both trying to address that question.”
But as the programme progresses, it reveals its depths. On the surface, it sees Nadiya travelling around Britain exploring the relationship between British produce and our culinary traditions; but go a bit further, and it explores multicultural Britain and the rainbow of influences that have brought about the way we eat and live, and our current national identity.
“You’re right, it’s not just about the food. I spent my whole life asking where I belong. And the big reason I did this programme is to ask who we are and what we all bring to this country. Britain’s going through a really tough time at the moment – and we take our comfort in food.
“For me, a meal isn’t something you just ‘whip up’, it’s about love, it’s giving and sharing. And when different cultures and worlds collide, it becomes really colourful – because that is the Britain we all live in.”
She’s really not your regular reality-show winner. This is the woman who grew up eating every meal on a rug on the floor with her fingers, and turned down a degree at King’s College London because her parents asked her to stay at home.
This is the woman who taught herself to cook from YouTube videos, and who went on to make Mary Berry cry with pride when she won Bake Off, saying, “I’m never going to put boundaries on myself again. I’m never going to say, ‘I don’t think I can.’ I can and I will.”
And this is the woman who has now become the most high profile and influential Muslim in the UK. How does that sit with her? “I certainly didn’t enter a baking show in the hope of representing anyone. Being a Muslim for me was incidental, but from the day the show was launched, I was ‘the 30-year-old Muslim’ and that became my identity.
“I struggled at the beginning, because I thought, ‘Am I the token Muslim?’ I’d never, in all my years, been labelled like that. I heard it constantly, ‘Oh, she’s the Muslim, she’s the Muslim.’ And I was so shocked by the amount of negative comments I got.”
There was a lot of hostility online during that series – and not just about the moment when Iain Watters had a diva fit and threw his arctic roll into the bin. Social media had a field day with Nadiya, and her home had to be police checked after she was threatened by anti-Islamic trolls, angry she had won the “not-so-British Bake Off ”.
For someone with an anxiety disorder, that must have been frightening. “I was really apprehensive at the beginning because of all the aggressive comments, but I realised by the end what a lovely country I live in. I hear the negativity, I see it, but it doesn’t affect me because, my goodness, they’re the minority – just a few keyboard warriors who say what they want in the middle of the night. We are so much more accepting than that: I never realised Britain had such open arms.”
This was the moment I fell in love with Nadiya: she was attacked by the one per cent of this country who trade in hatred and it made her appreciate the 99 per cent of people who don’t. If Nadiya is putting that heart into her new series, it’s a heart we really do need in our lives.
“OK, great, can we go and have fun now?” she asks. So we haul Big Sue into the park and lay out our picnic…
Nadiya Hussain with broadcaster Emma Freud and ‘Big Sue’ the rabbit
All the food comes from her new cook book, a one-world mix of multicultural sources: the Asian fusion pork pie of duck and Chinese five-spice; an Anglo-Indian scotch egg made with salmon and mustard seeds; a European Union quiche that contains a layer of Branston pickle between the cheese and the pastry; and a uniting of UK and USA values in the mother of all cakes, a deeply moist chocolate sponge on the bottom layer with biscuity, marshmallowy rocky road on the top.
All as unexpected as she is. While we’re talking, I notice people photographing her from behind trees – she is now recognised everywhere. Even the gynaecologist performing her last smear test asked her what Paul Hollywood is like. “I said: ‘Can I answer that once you’ve taken out the speculum, please?’’’
I eat double portions because she is fasting, but we chat incessantly about food, including this gem: “My favourite meal is still the dish my dad made for us when we were ill, a bowl of Smash instant mashed potatoes covered in half a tin of tomato soup.”
Most impressive of all, Nadiya positively welcomes Big Sue to the table, unlike the rest of my family, who have taken against her as being one giant pet too many. I decide I like Nadiya more than my children.
We talk families; despite the insane glamour of the past two years, her home is her purpose. “My life is solely to be a role model to my children,” she says. “Everything else that comes with it is a bonus. I was one of six – and two of my siblings were ill for most of their childhoods. My parents were endlessly at the hospital, so we were looked after a lot by our grandparents. Family is everything.”
How many grandchildren do your grandparents have, I ask. “72,” she replies.
She gives me the rest of the cake to feed my kids later, even though they don’t deserve it, and we move back indoors. We’d sat in the sun for an hour and while my face has melted into the duck pie, Nadiya still looks like a perfect, tiny supermodel.
I ask her to sign our loo wall (it’s a thing in our house) and I think the hunger is beginning to get to her as she puts: “For heaven’s sake, eat more cake.”
She says a little goodbye to Big Sue and as she leaves I ask her what the plan is now. “I don’t actually know what I’m doing or where I’m going, and I like that. I didn’t know I’d do Bake Off two years ago, I didn’t know I’d be making a TV series this year – I didn’t know I’d be here in your house until yesterday.
“That’s the state of my life. I get the joy of all this, and then I get to go home, feed my kids, clean my toilets, eat a big bag of crisps and watch EastEnders.”
As I said… we’ve got ourselves a new National Treasure.
Nadiya’s British Food Adventure is on Monday 8.30pm BBC2