Pranita Panda of Yarmouth makes coconut laddoo, a traditional Diwali sweet she learned from her mother. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Pranita Panda stood in early November in her delectably fragrant Yarmouth kitchen, which was decorated for Diwali with festive orange and yellow marigold garland strings, demonstrating how she prepares her coconut laddoos.

Panda makes a big batch of the little pink confection balls every year for Diwali, also called the Hindu Festival of Lights and the biggest Indian holiday of the year. Indians traditionally celebrate Diwali – a multiple-day event, though the main holiday falls on Sunday this year – by illuminating their homes with candles, lanterns and little decorative oil lamps called diyas, to represent the triumph of light over darkness and good over evil.

They make offerings to Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of prosperity, among other deities. They create elaborate rangoli designs with boldly colored powders on their floors or front doorsteps. They exchange gifts and light loads of firecrackers. And they eat.

Unlike some of the world’s other major faith-based holidays like the Muslim Ramadan, Diwali does not involve any fasting. As Panda noted with glee, “You can have all the food in the world at Diwali.”

Pranita Panda of Yarmouth adds a cashew to a coconut ladoo, a traditional dish to celebrate Diwali. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Decked out in a dazzling handloomed silk sari, Panda stirred shredded coconut together with sweetened condensed milk in a sauté pan on the stove. While Diwali celebrations involve multi-course feasts, sweets like her laddoos are a key part of the holiday, not just in her home but in the broader Indian community.

“I once asked somebody, ‘Why do we always make so many sweets for the festival?’ They said, ‘We always want people to be sweet, rather than be bitter.’ I’m not sure that is the right answer, but that’s the one I got,” Panda laughed.



“When you think of Diwali, you think Diwali sweets,” said Tanuja Desai Hidier of Yarmouth, whose family celebrates Diwali. “Sweets are just a big part of #IndianLife.”

Indeed, India is the world’s top consumer of sugar, according to Bloomberg. A 2022 study by the India-based digital health and wellness company found that sugar consumption per capita in India jumped 25 percent for women and 38 percent for men during the week of Diwali.

For some special sweet treats that she doesn’t prepare herself, Desai Hidier will head to South Portland’s Masal Mahal market, the state’s only exclusive Indian market.

Pranita Panda’s Dahi Vada, a traditional Indian dish made with lentil fritters, dunked in creamy yogurt and topped with spices Panda makes to celebrate Diwali. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

She’ll get some kulfi – Indian ice cream – at the market, as well as jalebi, a popular sweet snack of fried flour batter soaked in sugar syrup. “That’s not something we make at home, and it’s very sweet and syrupy and amazing,” Desai Hidier said.

“Everyone in the Indian community grows up with different favorites (for sweets),” said Mamta Punjabi of Scarborough, who co-owns Masala Mahal with her husband, Kishore. “We sell a variety here, and try to cater to everyone’s memories.”


But along with in-demand sweets like gulab jamun (deep-fried dough balls soaked in rose water syrup) and barfi (milk-based fudge), the market also sells plenty of savory snacks for the holiday. Items like banana chips, crispy chickpea flour noodles, roasted spiced nuts and samosas fly off the shelves as area Indian families stock up for Diwali festivities.

Panda said the sweets and savory snacks are so popular at the holiday in part because they’re so easily packed and giftable, making them ideal Diwali presents. Her husband, Bishnu Das, said the tremendous variety of festive foodstuffs circulating at Diwali reflects the diverse options available within India itself.

“There’s not one standard or typical way of celebrating,” Das said. “Every (Indian) state, every few hundred kilometers, things vary. That’s what makes it unique.”

“It’s all about food with the Indian community,” said Punjabi.

Bishnu Das and Pranita Panda in their Yarmouth home, decorated for Diwali with orange and yellow marigold garland strings. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer


Like Panda, many Indians living in Maine will host or attend home Diwali celebrations for family and close friends, which is an important outlet for expatriates who may be prone to waves of nostalgia around Diwali.


“We grew up in India where Diwali is (an official) holiday, and everyone in the community gets together and lights firecrackers and celebrates with sweets,” said Punjabi. “So over here, where on that day not everybody has that kind of celebration, you do feel homesick.”

Punjabi and her family celebrate Diwali locally with her sister-in-law’s family. “I’m lucky I have family in Maine we get together with at Diwali, and no matter where the kids are, they always come home. For me, that fills that little void that we feel from not being in India.”

The Indian Association of Maine also hosts a public Diwali celebration, with this year’s event set for Saturday at the Wentworth School in Scarborough.

The association’s annual Diwali gathering plays an important role for Maine’s Indian diaspora. “It brings the community together,” said Punjabi. “The Indians here (in Maine) are so scattered. This event gives them a chance to come and meet everyone and make friends.”

Panda left India for the U.S. in 2007, and she and Das have lived in Maine since 2017. She said she sees the state’s Indian population growing quietly.

“Whenever we go to an Indian gathering, I see a lot of new faces,” Panda said. “But still, when you compare with other states, the Indian diaspora here is small.”


“Massachusetts or New Jersey probably have four or five (Indian) associations each, but here in Maine, it’s a pretty small community,” added Das, both of them agreeing the long winters can make Maine a tough sell for Indian immigrants.

But for the Indian natives who have moved to Maine, “Diwali kind of brings them together and reminds them of their roots, and the traditions and beliefs our forefathers had,” Das said. “In all cultures, eventually that’s the goal: You learn how to make sure you are kind to others, share your wealth and happiness with others.”

Tanuja Desai Hidier, left, with her mother, Shashikala Karnik Desai, at home in Yarmouth in 2021. Courtesy of Tanuja Desai Hidier


In addition to making her scrumptious coconut laddoo for Diwali, Panda will also prepare samosas and a beguiling chaat – a loose category of savory snacks – called dahi vada, featuring fried lentil dumplings dunked in a yogurt slurry spiced with cumin, ginger juice and black salt and steeped with red chiles, mustard seeds and curry leaves. The dumpling-yogurt mixture is served with a potato curry (aloo dum), tamarind sauce, and a crunchy chickpea noodle topping (sev).

“It’s like a burst of flavors,” Panda says of the wonderfully aromatic, salty-sweet-sour-spicy dish, noting that this chaat dish is specific to Odisha in Eastern India, where she’s from.

As with any other major holiday, tradition takes precedence for Diwali cooks. “I make whatever my mom used to make,” Panda said. Both of her parents cooked, and she learned from watching them. She said she makes her chaat the same way her mother and grandmother once did.


Desai Hidier, too, will cook some of her mom’s recipes for Diwali, including sheera, a traditional pudding often made with toasted semolina, ghee, sugar, nuts and raisins. Her mother lived with her in Yarmouth from 2020 until she died in 2022.

“When my parents moved in, my mom taught me tons of her recipes,” Desai Hidier said. “She took the time to write things down so I would have measurements. Later, when it got harder for her to be able to come in the kitchen, I was granted the great gift of being able to make some of her childhood favorites – that had been my own childhood favorites – for her. To nourish her, as she’d done forever for us. That, to me, is Diwali, too. In a word: love.”

Pranita Panda’s coconut laddoo. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer


Makes 10 balls

Pranita Panda always makes this sweet, which her mother taught her, for Diwali. Find rose syrup at Masala Mahal in South Portland.

1 cup unsweetened dried coconut powder or shredded coconut, plus 1/4 cup for rolling balls
3/4 cup sweetened condensed milk
1 teaspoon rose syrup (Rooh Afza)
10 raw cashew halves


Lightly toast 1 cup coconut in skillet over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes or until aromatic but still uncolored.

Stir in condensed milk until well combined, cook 2 minutes.

Stir in rose syrup until well combined and mixture turns pink.

Remove from heat. Let coconut mixture stand 5 minutes or until just cool enough to handle

Using an ice cream scoop, scoop portions of the coconut mixture. Roll the scoops in the palms of your hands to form balls about 1 inch in diameter.

Roll each ball in 1/4 cup coconut powder until evenly coated.


Gently press a cashew half into the top of each ball. Set laddoos on a platter and serve.


Serves 4-6

Tanuja Desai Hidier’s Bombay-born late mother, Shashikala Karnik Desai, taught her how to make this simple sweet dish. You can use ghee instead of butter and jaggery for brown sugar; serve with ice cream if you like.

1/2 cup (1 stick) salted butter
1 cup whole wheat flour (or 1/2 cup whole wheat flour and 1/2 cup ground almonds)
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 to 1 teaspoon cardamom seeds, ground with a mortar and pestle (or cardamom powder)
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/3 cup heavy cream, warmed in microwave
1/4 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup slivered, blanched almonds

Melt butter over medium-low heat in a nonstick skillet.


Stir in flour (or flour/almond mixture); cook 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until mixture turns golden brown.

Stir in sugar; cook, stirring frequently, an additional 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in cardamom and nutmeg.

Fold cream and raisins into the flour mixture.

Garnish with almonds and serve warm.

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