Prime Minister David Cameron praised her coolness under pressure. Bookmakers monitored her performance as they do election candidates. Television watchers admired her raspberry mille-feuille and soda-flavored cheesecakes, along with her blue chocolate peacock, and a mountain of eclairs in the form of a nun.
The victory of Nadiya Jamir Hussain, a petite 30-year-old, head-scarf-wearing mother of three from northern England, in the wildly popular reality show The Great British Bake Off on Wednesday has been greeted by many in Britain as a symbol of immigration success, at a moment when the country’s leaders, Cameron included, have expressed concerns that it has too many newcomers.
Hussain’s popularity, bolstered by her self-deprecating humour and telling facial expressions, helped the final episodes of the baking program, in which contestants vie with one another to make a variety of desserts, attracting well more than 10 million viewers per show, according to news reports. She has also become a darling of social media, with more than 63,000 followers on Twitter as of Thursday afternoon.
In a country where baking stodgy desserts has a history dating back centuries and where the preparation of sweet treats is considered a quintessential part of homespun culture, the success of Hussain, an observant Muslim, spurred debate about national identity.
The popular embrace of Hussain, the daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants, seemed like an immediate and conspicuous counterpoint to a widely noted speech on Tuesday in which the home secretary, Theresa May, told a conference of Conservative Party members: “When immigration is too high, when the pace of change is too fast, it’s impossible to build a cohesive society.”
News media across the ideological spectrum greeted Hussain’s win as a seminal cultural moment. “Never before has a Muslim woman wearing a hijab been so clutched to the nation’s bosom,” wrote The Telegraph, a conservative daily newspaper.
Hussain’s newfound status as a national role model was also seen by many as a powerful riposte to some of the anti-Muslim sentiment fuelled by lurid reports of dozens of young Muslim Britons, including young women, who have gone to Syria to fight for the Islamic State.
Even Hussain’s triumphant final dessert, a “big fat British wedding cake,” offered a multicultural message of sorts by fusing her Bangladeshi and British identities. The lemon drizzle cake was decorated with jewels from her own wedding day in Bangladesh and was perched on a stand covered with material from a sari in red, blue and white, the colours of the Union Jack.
Shelina Janmohamed, a cultural commentator and author of Love in a Headscarf, a memoir about growing up as a British Muslim woman, noted that Hussain had managed to defy prejudice through her honesty, her cheeky sense of humour and her baking prowess.
In one particularly stressful episode, Hussain said she would rather brave childbirth again than try to bake another chocolate souffle.
“I love Nadiya,” Janmohamed wrote in The Telegraph. “Millions of people up and down the country love Nadiya. She doesn’t even need a surname anymore.”
She added: “She’s the face of today’s Britain: authentic, honest, creative, emotional, heartfelt and honest. Oh. And she’s Muslim. And she just happens to wear a head scarf.”
“But this newly discovered baking genius,” Janmohamed said, “despite being Muslim, isn’t cooking up any kind of Shariah-flavored sponge or jihadi cupcakes.”
Others celebrated her as an example of female empowerment. Her husband, Abdul, a technical manager at a computer company, had encouraged her to apply to the show and to pursue her passion. Her dessert recipes, which include cardamom and cumin, beat her rivals, including one who baked a bread that depicted Cecil, the black-maned lion killed by an American big-game hunter in Zimbabwe.
Hussain was born in Luton, a town with a large immigrant community about 30 miles north of London. The daughter of immigrants, she told the TV magazine Radio Times that her love of baking had been inspired by her school cooking teacher, Jean Marshall, since desserts were not common in Bangladeshi cuisine. According to news reports, her father worked in a restaurant, and she was frustrated that ice cream was the only dessert on the menu there.
Hussain told the Radio Times last month that she had been worried that her wearing of a head scarf could prove alienating to fans of the show.
“I was a bit nervous that perhaps people would look at me, a Muslim in a head scarf, and wonder if I could bake,” she said. “But I hope that people have realised that I can, and just because I’m not a stereotypical British person, it doesn’t mean that I am not into bunting, cake and tea.”
Not everyone has embraced her, and some critics have accused the BBC of political correctness by featuring minority contestants. Writing in a recent issue of the tabloid Daily Mail, Amanda Platell, a columnist, suggested that another contestant on the show would perhaps not have been eliminated in the semifinals had she baked a “chocolate mosque.”
But Hussain had the last word. “I am never going to put boundaries on myself ever again,” she said after her victory. “I’m never going to say I can’t do it. I’m never going to say maybe.” She added: “I can, and I will.”
The New York Times