Home cook Nallini Swaminathan still makes heirloom Malayalee recipes for Deepavali

Nallini says she enjoys making all the Malayalee dishes her mother taught her for Deepavali because her family enjoys it so much too.

In her gorgeous home kitchen, Dr Nallini Swaminathan is ladling spoonfuls of a deliciously creamy potato gravy called istew into a delicate white receptacle. “This is just simple comfort food,” she says, her beautiful face breaking into a disarming smile.

A psychologist by profession, Nallini still makes time to cook regularly and never fails to make her mother’s heirloom Malayalee recipes come Deepavali every year for her children, grandchildren and other relatives.

Interestingly, although she is now acknowledged to be a dab hand in the kitchen, Nallini wasn’t always such a skilled cook, although she did learn to cook as a teen.

“My mother used to go to India for three months every year, so when I was old enough, about 16 or 17, I was in charge of my father. We had maids, but my father wasn’t so keen on some of the dishes that the maids produced, so my mother said, ‘You better come and learn this’. And I did.

“But I must tell you, I wasn’t a fantastic cook. I could do a few dishes but that was about it,” she says, laughing at the recollection.

One of the reasons Nallini loves making classic Malayalee dishes for Deepavali because they remind her of the food she grew up eating as a child.

After getting married in her early twenties, Nallini and her husband lived in Britain for awhile and her mother-in-law lived with them and helped with the cooking. But upon returning to KL, Nallini had her own home and two children to manage, so she started learning how to cook in earnest.

“My mother would come and stay with us for quite a bit, so I looked into all her Malayalee dishes that are so ‘asli’, and I started learning them. So that’s really how I started cooking properly – it was very much later,” she says.

For Deepavali every year, there are a few Malayalee dishes that Nallini always makes for her family – all were passed down from her mother and continue to evoke memories of her halcyon childhood days.

Like istew for instance, which Nallini typically serves on Deepavali morning. The simple dish is made up mostly of potatoes, tomatoes and coconut milk and is best eaten with steaming hot puttu (a combination of ground rice and coconut shaped into cyclinders). It has a light flavour profile, with undulating creamy notes that are rich without being cloying.

“The istew is very simple – it’s a one-pot dish and very easy to make. It also makes a beautiful accompaniment with puttu so we like having it for breakfast at Deepavali,” affirms Nallini.

Nallini’s erisherry meanwhile is a soft pumpkin dish that is aromatic and slightly fiery with lovely traces of cumin running through it.

“Erisherry is basically pumpkin with lots of coconut in it. We normally have it for Deepavali lunch or dinner. It was a favourite among my daughter Nisha’s classmates. Whenever they used to come over for Deepavali, they would say, ‘Nisha, I hope your mother is making this!’”

For dessert, Nallini always whips up her mother’s signature adda, a sweet treat consisting of roti canai-ish bread stuffed with brown sugar and coconut that is then wrapped in banana leaves and toasted in a pan over heat, yielding smoky-sweet flavours that are incredibly addictive.

Every year, Nallini still makes all the heritage Malayalee recipes that her mother taught her. Clockwise from left: adda, erisherry and istew.

“Adda was my father’s favourite dish. My mother used to make it for Deepavali – everybody looked forward to it because they didn’t get it any other time. I didn’t bother learning it when I was younger, but my mother taught me when we first set up home here and I realised that it’s so easy to make.

“And this is something that is so typically Malayalee, you won’t find it anywhere else in India besides Kerala. And it can be done in two variations – you can steam it or roast it in a pan the way my mother taught me,” she says.

Although she herself has mastered all these Deepavali favourites gleaned from her mother, Nallini says her children have yet to learn them, although she is hopeful they eventually will.

“I won’t force them but I hope they learn because these are very easy, delicious dishes, so it’s only a matter of spending a little time to learn these recipes,” she says.

Nallini herself meanwhile remains committed to cooking up these heirloom meals come Deepavali for as long as she is able to.

“I enjoy setting up the table and presenting our favourite food, which often becomes other people’s favourite food. So I will continue making this always,” she says.


2 cups grated coconut

1 cup dark brown sugar

1 tbsp ground cardamom

2 cups plain flour with a pinch of salt

10 pieces banana leaf cut to 20cm x 20cm

To make

Mix coconut with sugar and cardamom in a bowl.

Mix the flour with some water to form a thick paste. Spread the flour paste onto the banana leaf evenly to form a circle.

Spread the sugar coconut mixture onto the flour circle evenly and fold the banana leaf.

Place the folded leaf in a dry kuali to roast on medium flame.

When the banana leaf has been slightly charred, the adda is done. Remove and continue to cook the rest.

Remove the leaf when serving.


1/2 cup oil

2 onions, cut finely

2.5cm ginger, cut finely

5 cloves garlic, cut finely

a few sprigs curry leaves

4 potatoes, cut into small pieces

2 tomatoes, sliced

5 cili padi, sliced

2 cups coconut milk

To make

In a pot, add oil and fry onions, ginger and garlic with curry leaves in oil until soft.

Cut potatoes into small pieces and add to the mixture and stir well. Add some water and tomatoes and cover the pan. Cook until the potatoes are very soft and a little mushy.

Add cili padi and coconut milk and stir until the mixture boils. Add salt to taste, turn off the flame and stir for a minute more. Serve hot with puttu.


1 kg pumpkin

2 tbsp chilli powder

1 cup grated coconut

2 tbsp cumin

1/2 cup oil

2 tbsp mustard seeds

1 tbsp dark brown sugar

salt to taste

To make

Cut pumpkin into small pieces and put into a pan. Add chilli powder and enough water to cover the pumpkin. Cook until very soft.

Grind ½ cup grated coconut with cumin until very fine. Add into pumpkin mixture and stir well on low flame.

In a separate kuali, pour in oil and temper mustard seeds and then add remainder of the grated coconut. Fry until brown and add this into the pumpkin mixture. Add brown sugar and salt to taste. On low heat, stir until evenly mixed. Serve hot with rice.

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