Talented chef Gayethri Selva shares her family's favourite Deepavali recipes

Gaya (left) continues to make all the heirloom Deepavali dishes that she grew up with for her own little family i.e. daughter Aarti (centre) and husband Jotiganesh. — Photos: SAMUEL ONG/The Star

At her restaurant in Kuala Lumpur, the gorgeous Gayethri Selva is carefully putting the finishing touches to a dish that is close to her heart: her signature mutton ghee roast.

“It is the best!” chirps in her precocious, charming little eight-year-old daughter Aarti Laxmi. Gayethri, or Gaya, as she is better known, looks on fondly at her little girl and the two share a conspiratorial smile.

It is evident that this familial bond is one that has bolstered Gaya’s love of cooking, especially during Deepavali – when the entire family gets together.

Gaya is the culinary head at Passage Thru India, the nearly 30-year-old Kuala Lumpur-based Indian eatery helmed by her family. The eatery is a popular hotspot for tourists and locals alike who throng the evergreen haunt for its appealing Indian fare.

More recently, Gaya herself has become a personality of sorts, through her Instagram account @chef.gaya, which has garnered over 70,000 followers. On her social media page, Gaya has introduced a medley of Indian dishes and recipes designed to get people better acquainted with Indian food.

Gaya learnt how to make all her mother's heirloom Deepavali recipes and now makes it a point to continue the tradition every festive season. Gaya learnt how to make all her mother's heirloom Deepavali recipes and now makes it a point to continue the tradition every festive season.

“My whole point is to tell people that Indian food may seem intimidating but it really isn’t. You just need a few staple ingredients to keep at home, like spices and curry powders and you’re good to go. It’s not rocket science or anything and that is my aim, to promote and encourage everyone to try cooking Indian food,” she says.

It is this love for Indian food that compels Gaya to continue the family tradition of hosting a large open house every Deepavali, featuring all the home-cooked dishes that have since became the stuff of lore.

Gaya says this practice began when she was just a child and would watch in awe as her mother prepared a huge feast for the festive season.

“Open houses have become much smaller these days but back then, we used to have our school friends, neighbours, my dad’s colleagues and other friends and family over and it would be a whole-day event.

“And despite going to bed late and waking up at 4am, my mother would be busy replenishing the dishes and she would keep going and going. She had this thing about frying the chicken on the spot so that it is nice and crispy so she would be doing that – entertaining guests and frying chicken! And people came just to eat!” she says.

Gaya herself recalls helping out with the Deepavali preparations when she was in primary school.

“I was six or seven years old when I was cutting meat. I remember I would pester and pester my mother to help in the kitchen until she would let me. When she gave in, I was like ‘OMG, I have such a big job in the kitchen!’ I felt so responsible.

“So I was tasked with cutting the muton into bite-sized cubes and my next job was to stir the curries so they didn’t stick to the pot. So I would stand on a stool and stir until I fell asleep and my mother came to send me off to bed,” says Gaya, laughing at the recollection.

These days, Gaya has taken charge of the family Deepavali spread (although her mother still keeps a watchful eye to ensure her high standards are maintained) and while the food she makes remains rooted in the traditional fare that her mother learnt to make from her maternal ancestors, she has also added some recipes she has picked up along the way.

Like her mutton ghee roast, for example. This is a sublime dish where the mutton is cooked till tender and coated in an incredibly rich masala that is nuanced with a spicy, slightly peppery underbelly and coats every fibre and molecule of the meat in its goodness. It’s the sort of mutton that makes you forget whatever diet you might be on, because well, it’s just so darn addictive!

“It’s decadent and rich, so it’s not something you would have every week, so I reserve that for special occasions and it’s become a crowd-pleaser. And it is also my personal favourite recipe when it comes to mutton as I’ve been cooking it for the past 10 years now,” says Gaya.

Gaya’s achar is another family staple that her grandmother learnt to make from a Malay neighbour. The family has since adapted it and made it their own and it is now a must-have on their Deepavali table. Gaya’s rendition of the achar is very, very good – the vegetables still retain a crunch and the entire dish has a vivacious quality that will enliven the spirits and spur the appetite. It also makes for a wonderful accompaniment with hot, steaming rice.

Another must-have for the festive season is chicken kurma, a dish that Gaya has modified slightly by adding kerisik (grated, toasted coconut) to give it additional dimension.

“For this dish, I tweaked my mother’s recipe a little bit by adding some chilli powder to give it colour and some kerisik too. Malay versions of kurma normally have kerisik and personally I like that version better.

“So I have a basic Indian recipe for kurma and on top of that, I’ve added kerisik and black pepper which gives it a smokiness and zing. So the creaminess and sweetness is still there, but there is also a slight twist. My mother wasn’t very keen when I was doing it this way, but after she tasted it, she was like, ‘Mmm, yeah, it’s okay!’ which is basically her version of ‘It tastes good’!” says Gaya, laughing.

Gaya’s iteration of chicken kurma is truly good – the chicken is malleable and the gravy that coats it is summery-light, with a smoky undertone and rich tropical nuances that make it such a fun, celebratory indulgence.

Capping this Deepavali bounty is Gaya’s plain pulao rice, which is anything but plain and is studded with cashews and raisins and is the perfect receptacle for mopping up all the curries, gravies and vegetables in this star-studded constellation.

Gaya says for her, Deepavali and the memories that have formed from her halcyon childhood days are forged and built on the food around the festive table. It is why she is determined to continue the tradition with her own little family i.e. husband Jotiganesh S. and daughter Aarti – so that the sacred food rituals that she holds in such esteem continue well into the future.

“Oh, its definitely important to me because even back then, friends would literally invite themselves over just to come and eat my mum’s cooking. And it’s the same thing with my friends now! And I want to cook – I want my friends and family to eat what I have made. For me, there’s joy in it and I feel really happy doing it.

“So I will definitely do this for as long as I can and I really hope that my mum is proud of me for keeping the tradition. And one day, I hope my daughter picks it up as well,” says Gaya, smiling.


1-2 tbsp vegetable or coconut oil

1 tsp mustard seeds

1 tbsp chilli paste

1/4 tsp turmeric powder

2 tsp salt

10 shallots, sliced

2 big cucumbers, cored and cut into 5cm sticks (unpeeled)

2 big carrots, peeled and cut into 5cm sticks

1 tbsp sugar

2 tbsp vinegar

1 tbsp white sesame seeds

Heat oil in a wok over medium fire. Add in mustard seeds and allow to sizzle. Now add in chilli paste, turmeric powder and salt. Stir-fry for 3 minutes.

Pour in shallots, cucumber and carrots, sprinkle in sugar, drizzle in vinegar. Increase fire to high and give it a good mix for 3 minutes.

Turn off fire, transfer achar to a serving platter, sprinkle white sesame seeds over the top and serve hot or cold along with biryani.


1 tbsp ghee/clarified butter + 1 tbsp coconut oil

1 red onion, thinly sliced

2 tbsp ginger-garlic paste

1/2 tsp turmeric powder

1kg mutton, bone-in, cleaned and cut into bite-sized pieces

1 tsp salt or 1 chicken/lamb stock cube

1 litre water

Heat ghee and oil in a big pot over medium heat. Add in onion, fry for a minute. Add ginger-garlic paste and turmeric powder, fry until onions turn golden brown. Be careful not to burn them.

Add in mutton pieces, fry for 1 minute. Pour in water and add salt or stock cube. Allow to boil until mutton is tender. If using a pressure cooker, cook mutton with ½ litre of water for about 4 to 5 whistles. Once done, reserve mutton stock for use later.

For preparing while mutton is boiling

2 tbsp grated coconut

1 cinnamon stick

1 star anise

5 cloves

1 tsp fennel seeds

2 tsp cumin seeds

1 tbsp coriander seeds

2 tbsp black peppercorns

15 dried red chillies (boiled for 3 minutes and drained)

3 garlic cloves

2cm ginger

2 shallots, roughly chopped

4 to 5 tbsp water

Heat a frying pan over medium heat. Add grated coconut, dry roast until lightly browned. Remove from pan, keep aside.

In the same pan, continue to dry roast the rest of the ingredients, except water until fragrant. Don’t burn the spices. Turn off fire.

In a blender, blend roasted coconut and spices with water till you get a smooth paste.

For cooking together

2 tbsp ghee/clarified butter + 2 tbsp coconut oil

blended spice paste

3 tbsp Greek yoghurt

reserved mutton stock

boiled mutton

salt to taste

In a wok, heat ghee and oil over medium heat. Add in spice paste and yoghurt. Stir to combine.

Pour in reserved mutton stock, mix evenly and allow to come up to a boil. Cook until mixture reduces and oil surfaces to the top.

Now add in mutton, stir and coat mutton pieces in gravy. Continue stirring until gravy reduces until it is almost dry.

Turn off fire, dish up and sprinkle a few curry leaves or fresh coriander leaves to garnish. Enjoy with white rice or naan.

Subscribe now to our Premium Plan for an ad-free and unlimited reading experience!

Next In Food News

Thai and Johor favourites among weekday lunch options
Sweet chewy treats to enjoy on cool evenings
Malaysia Day curry puff offer attracts long queues
Renowned Japanese chef offers exclusive menu during KL visit
Dishes from yesteryear
Random useful tips
Capsicum baked egg
A plethora of colour and flavours
A living legend
7 superfoods found in your kitchen

Others Also Read