Kwanzaa: The Food and Traditions

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A Kwanzaa menu can range broadly depending on family traditions, from classic African-American soul food to dishes from every point of the African diaspora.

Kwanzaa gets its name from the Swahili (East African) phrase matunda ya kwanza, meaning "first fruits of the harvest." It started in the late '60s as a holiday of cultural affirmation inspired by sub-Saharan African harvest festivals. Over the decades, as the holiday entered the African-American mainstream, African foods got less emphasis, and celebrants increasingly turned to more familiar foods of the African diaspora. Catfish, collards, and macaroni and cheese all began showing up on Kwanzaa tables, as did jerk chicken, gumbo, accras (Caribbean fritters) and feijoada — foods of the Atlantic rim expressive of the geography of the African diaspora.

Kwanzaa food, at its simplest, is any dish people cook for Kwanzaa. There are no rules to it. The vast majority of what we see is some combination of sub-Saharan African (East and West), soul food and coastal dishes of the Atlantic rim with clearly traceable roots to Africa or African-Americans.

The table is often laid with a few symbolic foods: the mazoa, fruits and vegetables symbolizing the bounty of the harvest (usually foods emblematic of the African diaspora, such as okra, yams, squash, sweet potatoes and bananas), alongside the muhindi, ears of corn representing each child still remaining at home. Those are accompanied by the kikombe cha umoja (a communal chalice), zawadi (gifts) and kinara (a seven-branched candlestick that holds the red, black and green candles that are lighted each evening).

The menu can range broadly depending on family traditions, from classic African-American soul food to dishes from every point of the African diaspora. The focal point is often some kind of one-pot stew or braise, which can come from one of many traditions: Ghanaian groundnut stew, West Indian or South African curry dishes, Philadelphia pepper pot stew, jambalaya, Nigerian jollof rice or Senegalese thieboudienne. Starches range as well and can include rice or couscous, candied yams, buttermilk biscuits and spoonbread, plantains, fritters, hoppin' John and injera. The most-important thing is that the meal is shared, as Kwanzaa is at its heart a holiday about community.