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A Taste of Kwanzaa Tradition

African and soul food-inspired dishes for the holiday

Each year as the calendar winds down, the holiday of Kwanzaa is just beginning. Honoring African American culture and heritage, Kwanzaa is a week-long celebration observed from December 26 though January 1. It’s seven days marked by family and community gatherings, lighting symbolic candles, and sharing delicious food.  Dating back to 1966, the holiday serves as more than a festive get-together; it’s an important signifier of Black identity and unity in America. 

Kwanzaa was born in the aftermath of the Watts riots in Los Angeles with the goal of unifying and raising the visibility of the Black community. Each day is dedicated to one of seven core principles, known as Nguzo Saba, which encompass African American identity according to the holiday’s creator, Professor Maulana Karenga. Each of the principles, such as self-determination, creativity, and faith, is represented by a candle on a seven-branched candleholder called a kinara. Based in part on African harvest traditions, the holiday culminates with a large, communal feast called Karamu. 

Though the word Kwanzaa roughly translates to “first fruits of the harvest,” the holiday’s menu varies. Traditional American soul food dishes – like mac and cheese, collard greens, and fried catfish, to name a few – are every bit at home on the Kwanzaa table as foods inspired by the African harvest season. If you’re celebrating your first Kwanzaa, or just looking for some tasty, holiday-worthy inspiration, these recipes are a great place to start. 

Spicy Butternut Squash and Kale Stew with Peanuts

Kickstart your Kwanzaa celebration with this vegan-friendly stew that sings with the distinctive taste of peanuts, or “groundnuts” as they’re known in Western Africa, where they’re a staple ingredient. Typically called African Peanut Stew, our version gets a double dose from creamy peanut butter in the coconut milk-spiked broth and a crunchy garnish of chopped peanuts on top. We bypassed some of the prep work by using pre-chopped butternut squash, which helps get this stew on your Kwanzaa table in under 30 minutes.  

Instant Pot Collard Greens With Bacon 

You can find collard greens at most Kwanzaa celebrations because they’re not only delicious (and packed with nutrients), but also symbolic. Kwanzaa menus often include foods that are red, black, and green, which are the colors of the Bendera, the Black liberation or Pan-African flag. Green represents hope for the future and collard greens, specifically, symbolize good fortune. Our Southern-inspired greens with bacon and a splash of tangy cider vinegar braise in the slow cooker, saving you room on the stovetop.  

Black-Eyed Pea Salad 

Black-eyed peas symbolize good luck in a variety of cultures around the world. Both their black color, which in the Bendera represents racial pride, and their popularity as a soul food ingredient make black-eyed peas a go-to side dish for Kwanzaa. Black-eyed peas are the protein-packed building blocks for this salad (which also features red and green) that’s ready in 10 minutes.  

Southern-style Mac and Cheese Casserole 

No soul food spread is complete without a big pan of ooey-gooey mac and cheese. Our version gets an extra dash of Southern inspiration from diced ham. This crowd-pleaser, which feeds 12, is perfect for a potluck-style Karamu or just including a few extra seats at the family table.  

Slow Cooker Candied Yams 

Kwanzaa tables are often adorned with yams, sweet potatoes, and other mazao, fruits and vegetables that symbolize the African harvest. Earthy and sweet, candied yams are also a staple of traditional Southern menus, whether it’s a holiday celebration or just weeknight family dinner. This version is made entirely in the slow cooker form start to finish, so there’s no guesswork and no waiting for the water to boil. 

Fried Sweet Plantains 

Plantains are a dietary staple of cultures in tropical climates around the world, including the Caribbean and parts of Africa. Unripe, green plantains are used in savory dishes, while the sweeter, ripened fruit is more commonly found in desserts. These traditional sweet fried plantains known as maduros are equally delicious after the big meal or served as a side. 

Slow Cooker Jerk Chicken 

Though its origins are Jamaican, not African, jerk chicken is a popular main course at Kwanzaa celebrations. This recipe doesn’t skimp on the heat, but you can swap in traditional Scotch bonnet peppers or habaneros for even more fiery flavor.  

Cornmeal Crusted Catfish 

Fried catfish holds a place in the soul food hall of fame, so it’s certainly at home on the Kwanzaa table. A dusting of cornmeal and shallow pan fry create a flavorful, crispy coating without all the oil, calories, and mess of deep frying.  

Easy Southern Cornbread 

Corn, or muhindi as it’s known in Swahili, is another symbolic part of mazao often displayed at Kwanzaa. For this take on classic Southern cornbread, we took a few shortcuts. Boxed corn muffin mix gets a boost of flavor and moisture from canned creamed corn. You might want to make a double batch of both the cornbread and the homemade whipped honey butter because, unlike Kwanzaa, they won’t last more than one night (they’re too delicious!). 

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