Bake Off winner: ‘I would have liked my religion and colour to be incidental’

Bake off winner Nadiya Hussain was in conversation with journalist and author Yasmin Alibhai-Brown at the opening night of the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival. Image credit: George Torode

Bake off winner Nadiya Hussain had a frank discussion with journalist and author Yasmin Alibhai-Brown at the opening night of the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival in which race, religion and being a role model were among the topics discussed. Image credit: George Torode

Bake Off winner: ‘I would have liked my religion and colour to be incidental’

09 May 2016

By Naomi Canton

The winner of the BBC’s The Great British Bake Off  Nadiya Hussain said her sole aim in life had always been to be a positive role model to her children and she never dreamt she would become an idol to thousands of young Muslims and non-Muslims across the UK.

Hussain, who is of Bangladeshi heritage, and was born in Luton, told columnist and author Yasmin Alibhai-Brown on the opening night of the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival 2016 that she would have liked her skin colour and religion to have been “unnoticed and incidental” when she won the BBC One show.

The 31-year-old also revealed that getting on the TV show gave her back her confidence which she had lost after becoming a stay-at-home mother.

And at the event she revealed further details about her upcoming cookery books and debut cookery TV show, and her reaction to baking the Queen’s 90th birthday cake.

Hussain lived in Luton until the age of 20 when she got married. She then lived in Leeds before moving to Milton Keynes, where she is now based.  Her Dad is a first-generation Bangladeshi immigrant to the UK who works as chef in a restaurant. From as early as she can remember “she loved food and mixing things” taking after her Dad, she said. Her Mum, on the other hand, saw food more as “sustenance”.

“I was always cooking and was in the kitchen from forever. My Dad constantly encouraged us,” she said.

It was not until the age of 12 at school that she got into baking cakes though. “My teacher would put eggs and flour into the oven and a cake would come out. It was like sorcery!” she said, as her face lit up into a smile. She revealed she used to go and watch the teacher bake during her lunch-break. “I would not leave her alone!” she said laughing.

It was only because of that home economics teacher that she believed in herself and felt she was good enough to bake cakes, she told the audience. But when many years later she met the teacher, she informed her to her surprise, that she hated baking.

“Even though she did not like it, it was a means to an end for her, a job, and I ‘got that’ being a parent myself, but she had made me believe it was her dream job,” Hussain said, seemingly even more in awe of the teacher after finding this out.

Hussain also let on that her husband Abdal had “got stick” for letting her apply to the BBC show “and he had to take flak for that. But he does not follow the rules and that’s probably why I love him,” she said.

“I saw my job as that of housewife and I wanted to do it well. My husband, who is an IT specialist manager [at which point she mouthed “boring” to the audience, many of whom burst into laughter] was always the breadwinner. Then I think he realised how much my kids needed me and he felt like he was missing out, so he said ‘I feel like it’s time you go out and do something for yourself as I feel like you have lost confidence’. My husband and I don’t ever fight,” she continued. “We are so different. If I can’t sleep I ask him how his day has been and I fall asleep right away.”

To appear on the programme, Hussain had to travel to Manchester with cakes and bake in commercial kitchens. “I had lost my confidence so much that I could not even take a train back then. I could only do routine ones like the school run,” she revealed. She said when she finally did travel to Manchester it was something she had not done in a decade as until then every aspect of her life had been about her kids, husband or parents.

This loss of confidence was something Alibhai-Brown could relate to after recently losing her column on The Independent after 18 years. She said she had been at a masterclass the night before on blogging so she take up something else after losing that column and she met other women there, who like Hussain, were struggling with self-esteem after having children and giving up work.

Hussain said she didn’t even tell her parents she was on the TV show until the very end. “I did not tell my Dad until the finals. He can’t keep secrets. When I told him he said, ‘Did you get any prize money?’ I said ‘No’ and he said ‘I’ve raised a fool then.’” She countered that all she had hoped for was a trophy.

“My parents always said we won’t do well and were very self-deprecating so they have never encouraged us. I remember when I was in the finals of the show my Mum told me she preferred another cake. She tends to protect us as she is afraid we will get hurt,” she said.

“I was happy being a Mum; I was happy with my life as Iong as my kids were happy, that was enough. My life goal was always to have happy kids and for them to see a happy mother.

“When I did Bake Off, I did not expect to get on the show and then I didn’t expect to get to the second round and then I didn’t expect to get to the finals – every part of it was not expected so to win was the icing on the cake for me.”

Alibhai-Brown pointed out Hussain was a role model for so many young women in the UK.


Nadiya Hussain reveals to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown how she had lost her confidence after becoming a mother and going on the Bake Off show gave a great boost to her self-esteem. Image credit: George Torode

“I went into the show thinking that maybe it would boost my confidence and I’ll get to the second round, that was all,” Hussain said. “But that is the positive side of getting to connect with so many people – British, Bangladeshi, Muslim, the people who think I am from Sudan– everyone seems to have positive things to say and they have all taken something positive from my win.  If I can raise three decent children then I would feel that I would have provided to society – that is three good kids that don’t break the law. That’s what I wanted to do but if it’s more than then then why not? But at the same time some people said ‘she’s not a proper Muslim as she has been on TV,’” she said.

Hussain revealed both her and Abdal had received some abuse after she went on the show. “I am human and things do get said on Twitter and someone said to my husband, ‘How do you allow your wife to make a TV show with men?’  It hurts when people say things on Twitter. When I went on the show I never claimed to be the perfect Muslim or Bengali. I was asked to bleach my hands before making the Queen’s cake. I remember when my name was announced some people said ‘she is the only one who is a housewife. She must be on benefits.’ Now I don’t listen to it anymore,” she said.

“I would have liked to have gone onto The Great British Bake Off and my religion and colour had gone unnoticed and it was all incidental,” she stated.

Becoming the GBBO 2015 winner and the public response to her immediately catapulted Hussain to fame. She is now a columnist for The Times and Essentials and a regular on BBC One’s The One show. Her first cookbook tiled Nadiya’s Kitchen to be published by Michael Joseph will be released on 16 June and her first TV cookery show titled Chronicles of Nadiya, a two-part documentary, which traces her Bengali culinary roots, will be screened on BBC One. She is also writing her first fiction book to be released next year.

The TV show is produced by Love Productions, creators of The Great British Bake Off. The broadcast date has not yet been announced. In it she goes back to her granddad’s village in Bangladesh to see how that has changed and to meet her relatives.

“My fondest memories are of spending time with my Dada (Dad’s Dad) in Bangladesh. My grandfather was a simple humble rice farmer. I remember when I was a child he said to me ‘I am this brown because of the sun. I am actually white.’ He used to grow pink rice. I remember how he put me on a buffalo and we harvested the land together. He always said he just farmed, but to me he was so much more than that.”


Chief Executive of Asia House Michael Lawrence meets Nadiya Hussain on stage at the opening of the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival. Image credit: George Torode

The cookbook coming out in June has tried and tested recipes in it such as strawberry curd tart and mango and parsley pavlova. “My kids haven’t spat them out so I reckon they are alright recipes,” she laughed. “They are pitifully honesty with my food!”

“For me the book is a mix of everything I have done over the last 10 years. It encapsulates everything I am in the kitchen. It is one of the most important parts of the post Bake Off for me. It’s three months of hard work and it’s my fourth baby,” she said.

She also has a children’s cookbook – mixed with stories – coming out this autumn.

Titled Nadiya’s Bake Me a Story and published by Hachette Children’s Group, it is a combination of modern “vamped-up fairy tales,” as Hussain describes them, each with their own stories and recipes so children can read a story and then do a recipe. “It’s taking the book out of the bedroom into the kitchen,” she said.  She also revealed she was writing a fiction novel, to be released next year.

She said that when she got the email about baking the Queen’s 90th birthday cake, at first, she did not think it was real. Then she could not think straight as she was on a flight to Bangladesh to film for her cookery show.

“I had to think about designs for the Queen’s birthday cake while I was on the Ganges in a boat with otters and I did not have paper, pen or Wi-Fi. It was an impossible situation! I got back from Bangladesh and I had about eight days to present the cake. I thought to myself that I had recently made a lemon drizzle cake for one of the GBBO judges Mary Berry, so I thought let’s do an orange drizzle one for the Queen. I didn’t want to do traditional fruit cake as doesn’t cut very well. I decided not to add star anise or cardamom in it and stick to a simple classic recipe,” she said.

“Then I thought about decoration and I thought ‘let’s not do white with flowers’ so instead I made it really tall and purple and added stripes to it,” Hussain said. “I stand by what I did as I had so much fun. It was 21 inches high and three tiers. It was a purple and a stripey then a top gold tier. The best part was that the Queen took the top tier home. I am hoping that Barack Obama [who was visiting the UK] had it the next day or she had it the next day in her slippers with a cup of tea,” she said.


Author of ‘Exotic England: The Making of a Curious Nation’ Yasmin Alibhai-Brown says Britain is very intermingled with Asian culture. Image credit: George Torode

Alibhai-Brown spoke about how intermingled Britain was with Asian culture, a top explored in her book Exotic England: The Making of a Curious Nation.

“I wonder if this [referring to Nadiya’s Bake Off win] could happen in France?” she asked. “I can’t see it happening yet but this country has had such a long history of connection between the East, South and West that it did not feel strange at all. During the colonial times the French made people assimilate and they had to be French whereas the Brits were like ‘Be who you want to be; we don’t mind who you are.’ It was a very different approach. You can be yourself in Britain. If you ask the refugees in the Calais Jungle they all want to go to the UK. They say ‘In Britain people know us. They don’t know us here in France.’”

During the Q & A session the Minister of Press from the Bangladesh High Commission, London, Nadeem Qadir, asked Hussain how she stayed in touch with her Bengali roots. “I went there every year until I got married at 20 and then I had kids and it was like downhill from there,” she joked. “I only went back a few weeks ago. My Dad always made us speak Bangla at home and not English and I did a GCSE in it. I can read, write and understand it. My children are desperate to learn about Bangladesh and every now and then they ask me about my family’s village. They have a very innate need to learn about it,” she said. “There is a need to learn about who they are and so I am feeding their curiosity naturally rather than ramming it down their throat. I am gently teaching them about their heritage and roots.”


Nadeem Qadir, Minister (Press) from the Bangladesh High Commission, London, asks Nadiya Hussain how she stays in touch with her Bangldeshi roots during the Q&A session at the end. Image credit: George Torode

To see a slideshow of the night click below:-

Nadiya Hussain in conversation

All images are copyright George Torode

The Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival continues until 18 May.  To book tickets and see the full programme click here.