Every night, after breaking the fast during the holy month, Anisa Karolia, her daughter and two sons head out of the front door with carefully prepared food for their neighbours in Leicester.
It is a Ramadan tradition carried on from Karolia’s own childhood in the East Midlands city when her grandmother would send her off at sunset to deliver fresh pakoras or samosas wrapped in kitchen paper.
“It teaches my children about sharing and kindness,” the cookbook author and blogger tells The National.
She has just finished making chicken and cheese pasties – helped by three little kitchen hands with the fillings, egg wash and sprinkling of sesame seeds – for today’s offerings, and a chocolate crumble cake with chopped peaches and cream.
Karolia often involves her children in the cooking, gently encouraging them to learn from any mistakes. “When they come back from school, they come straight to the kitchen because they can smell the aromas,” she says.
Described as the UK’s most popular Muslim food blogger, her online channels featuring cooking videos and recipes reach 240,000 followers and she won the British Muslim Award for Digital Activity in 2020.
The Ramadan Cookbook, her first book, was written to give others the skills to prepare home-made festive meals for suhoor, iftar and Eid, and when celebrating at other times of the year.
The book brings together the traditional recipes Karolia grew up with and dishes regularly requested by her family at home, as well as contemporary adaptations of foods commonly served during Ramadan.
“I want people to be able to make these foods at home, because cooking is a life skill,” she says.
Her style draws on many world cuisines but perhaps the strongest influence in its evolution came from her late Malawian-born grandmother, Mariam, who moved to the UK from India in the 1950s.
“She would make lots of delicious food during Ramadan, that’s where my passion for food started,” she says. “She taught me about the different herbs she was growing in the garden, like mint and coriander.”
Among the 80 recipes selected for the book is Mariam’s chicken, mogo and corn casserole – mogo being a starchy root vegetable – as well as a kidney bean curry contributed by Karolia’s mother-in-law, Yasmin, whose early years were also spent in Malawi.
A rose and pistachio milk cake combines Persian flavours with the classic Latin American tres leches, or three-milk, dessert while spicy potato and sweetcorn tortilla samosas give a healthier, Mexican twist to the traditional Indian pastries.
“Tortillas are so easy – it’s just a fold and you have a triangle shape,” she says, recalling unsuccessful early efforts attempting the same with samosa dough as a child.
To this day, Mariam and the food she so generously shared are remembered fondly by many people that Karolia meets in Leicester, and part of her mission now is to preserve the traditions handed down.
But, as with many of her generation, her grandmother rarely kept a written record of the dishes that inspired what the author describes as “my beautiful relationship with food and cooking”.
“She never wrote down recipes, she never took measurements, she would just know. She would say: “This is how we made it in Malawi, this is how we made it in India’. Her food was so delicious.”
Over many years, Karolia and her mother, Amina, set about trying to rectify this by putting together handwritten recipe books.
The journey to becoming an online chef, having worked previously at a call centre and as a civil servant, began after the birth of her third child.
“I set up a baking business making cupcakes, novelty cakes and wedding cakes,” she says, “but then I thought: ‘I actually want to teach.’”
She initially offered baking classes to children and adults, imparting the basics such as how to pipe a cupcake or make sugar icing flowers, before moving on to savoury dishes.
“I taught them how to chop onions, how to make a curry base, plain rice or chapatis,” Karolia says.
The blogging of simple-to-follow recipes started in 2015 and eventually led to partnerships, including with the Co-op supermarket chain and food brands such as the drink manufacturer Rubicon.
“I don’t want people to feel intimidated and feel put off cooking,” she says. “I used to get messages from people who said they’d never cooked until now.”
She is emphatic when asked whether Mariam would mind her recipes being published in The Ramadan Cookbook for all the world to use. “There’re a lot of people who don’t want to share recipes. My grandmother wasn’t like that. She really wanted people to learn.”
Karolia admits, though, to not always following recipes to the letter herself, and hopes that the book gives readers the confidence over time to improvise with food – just like her grandmother did.
Spicy potato and sweetcorn tortilla samosas
There is something satisfying about a good old-fashioned vegetarian samosa. My samosas, with spicy potatoes and sweetcorn, are wrapped in ready-made tortillas so you’re good to go in no time at all! These can be enjoyed any time – they are perfect for batch-cooking and freezing, so ideal for iftar, but they are delicious throughout the year.
Time: Prep 45 minutes. Cook 14 minutes
1 large potato, peeled and cut into 1cm cubes
200g tin of sweetcorn, drained
1 tsp green chilli paste
1 tsp garlic paste
1 tsp chilli powder
1 tsp hot paprika
1 tsp ground cumin
½ tsp salt
½ tsp ground black pepper
½ tsp nigella seeds
100g mozzarella cheese, grated
2 tbsp plain flour
8 tbsp water
4–5 tortilla wraps, cut in half
oil, for deep-frying
Boil the potatoes for 8–10 minutes until only just tender, then drain in a colander and set aside.
Place the sweetcorn in a bowl with the chilli paste, garlic paste, chilli powder, paprika, cumin, salt, black pepper, nigella seeds and mozzarella. Add the potatoes and mix everything together, mushing the mixture with the back of a spoon a little, but not completely, to add some texture to the mixture.
Make a paste by mixing the flour and water in a small bowl to a smooth consistency.
Take one of the tortilla halves and use a pastry brush to brush a little of the flour paste around the edges. Place 2 tbsp of the filling on one half of the tortilla and fold the other half over the top to form a triangle, as shown. Gently press around the edges of the samosa to make sure it’s sealed properly, then repeat with the remaining tortillas and filling.
Heat the oil for deep frying in a large saucepan on a medium-high heat until it reaches 180°C. Fry the samosas in batches for 1 minute on each side until golden all over, then drain on kitchen paper. These are best eaten fresh on the day they are cooked.
Tip: These samosas can also be baked. Brush with a little oil and bake in a preheated oven at 180°C (gas mark 4) for 10-15 minutes.
Masala roast chicken and herby potatoes
Indian-spiced roast chicken is juicy, delicious and perfect for family dinners. You can roast, grill or pan-fry the chicken as you prefer. Adjust the amount of chilli powder to your liking.
Time: Prep 40 minutes. Marinating 1-2 hrs. Cook 1 hr 10 mins
4 chicken breasts, thighs or drumsticks
125ml oil, plus extra for drizzling
½ tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp chilli powder
1 tsp ground black pepper
1 tbsp ground coriander
1 tbsp ground cumin
1 tbsp hot paprika
1 tbsp peri-peri seasoning
1 tbsp ginger paste
1 tbsp garlic paste
4 tbsp lemon juice
½ tsp salt
500g small new potatoes, halved
2 tsp fresh thyme leaves
2 tsp finely chopped fresh mint
2 tsp finely chopped fresh parsley
1 tsp ground black pepper
1 tsp salt
Preheat the oven to 190°C (gas mark 5). Cut a few deep slits into the chicken flesh, then place the pieces in a bowl with all the remaining chicken ingredients and mix really well to coat the chicken, rubbing the spices into the slits. Leave in the fridge for 1-2 hours to marinate.
Line a roasting tin with foil and place the chicken in the tin. Drizzle with a little oil, cover with foil and cook in the oven for 30-40 minutes, removing the foil halfway through. The chicken will release juices as it cooks – when the juices run clear, the chicken is done.
For the herby potatoes, boil the potatoes in a saucepan of water for 12–15 minutes, or until tender. Drain and return to the pan, then add the remaining potato ingredients and coat the potatoes in the buttery herb sauce.
Rose and pistachio milk cake
Also known as rose and pistachio tres leches or three-milk cake, this is the perfect dessert to pretty up your table. Trust me, it’s so easy, tastes absolutely heavenly and looks so good. This is an incredibly indulgent, sophisticated and moreish dessert and you just can’t say no to it!
Time: Prep 35 minutes. Cook 25 minutes. Resting 3 hours
4 eggs, separated
160g granulated sugar
2 tbsp rose syrup
160g self-raising flour
½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp ground cardamom
410g tin of evaporated milk
200ml full-fat milk
200ml double cream
150g condensed milk
1 tbsp rose syrup
pinch of ground cardamom
300ml double cream
1–2 tbsp rose syrup
dried rose petals
pinch of ground cardamom
Preheat the oven to 180°C (gas mark 4) and line a 28 x 18cm shallow heatproof dish with baking paper.
Place the egg yolks in a large bowl with half the sugar and whisk with an electric hand whisk on medium speed until thick and pale in colour. Whisk in the rose syrup – this will instantly change the colour of the mixture and give an amazing flavour to the sponge. Add the milk and sift in the flour and baking powder. Add the ground cardamom and gently fold in until just combined.
Place the egg whites in another large bowl with the remaining sugar. Clean and dry the whisk, then whisk the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Carefully fold the egg whites into the egg yolk mixture until fully combined, taking care not to knock out too much of the air.
Pour the mixture into the prepared dish and cook in the oven for 25 minutes, or until the sponge is golden brown in colour and springs back when pressed.
For the rose milk, mix all the ingredients together in a jug. Use a skewer to poke holes all over the cake, then slowly pour most of the milk mixture over the top, reserving a little for serving. Refrigerate for a few hours or overnight to allow the cake to soak up the milk.
For the topping, whisk the cream and rose syrup together until soft peaks form, then spread over the cake. Decorate with chopped pistachios, rose petals and a sprinkling of ground cardamom. Cut the cake into squares and serve with the remaining rose milk.
Store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 3-4 days.
Extracted from The Ramadan Cookbook by Anisa Karolia (Ebury Press, £22). Photography by Ellis Parrinder