How to Put Together the Perfect Kwanzaa Menu

Get an inside look into how sisters Tonya Hopkins and Kenya Parham developed a stunning set of modern, Afro-centric recipes for new Food Network digital series, The Kwanzaa Menu.

December 09, 2022

Culinary chronicler Tonya Hopkins is the host of Food Network's new digital series The Kwanzaa Menu.

When sisters Tonya Hopkins and Kenya Parham were presented with the opportunity to create a menu that revolves around Kwanzaa, they knew that they would bring something bold, new and flavorful to a holiday that carries deep significance in their home.

“We’ve been celebrating Kwanzaa as a family for Kenya’s entire life, so for us, this was really an amazing project to showcase a deeply meaningful practice that’s so important to our lives,” says Hopkins.

The daughters of educators Davida Hopkins-Parham and Dr. Thomas A. Parham, an internationally renowned psychologist and the current President of California State University, Dominguez Hills, the sisters have accomplished much in their own right. Tonya is a former advertising executive turned culinary historian, published writer and host, while Kenya, who dons many hats, is an entrepreneur and strategist who currently advises major entertainment studios on how to be “culturally competent” in the branding and marketing of award-winning projects.

Dr. Parham was an early celebrant of Kwanzaa and started creating holiday traditions with his family in the ’80s. The two sisters recall charming memories of these Kwanzaa celebrations, complete with authentic textiles, decorations colored in Pan-African red, green and black, and seven days of intention-setting candle-lighting.

Kwanzaa-specific food, however, has been a bit more obscure. While the holiday’s creator, Dr. Maulana Karenga, offered many instructions on how to engage with the holiday’s seven principles and celebrate with loved ones, there hasn’t been much guidance on what to eat, outside of the presumed “soul food.” Building on the groundbreaking work of Dr. Jessica B. Harris and restaurateur B. Smith, both close family friends, the sisters have developed a complete Kwanzaa menu featuring a range of beautiful, Afro-centric recipes to celebrate across the seven-day period.

“So many of the recipes are demonstrative of our people’s history and ingredients native to the Motherland (Africa). We’ve always said theres no better [holiday] than Kwanzaa to highlight Black food culture, particularly to help connect us to a land and history we were stripped away from centuries ago,” says Parham.

Kenya, who eats plant-based, and Tonya, who aims to prioritize healthy, gluten-free eating throughout her life and culinary career, offer a geographically diverse, health-conscious menu that is inclusive of various cultures, as well as dietary lifestyles found across the Black diaspora. They bring dishes and ingredients from the heart of the African continent, like “Good Deed” collard greens and smoky benne (sesame) and Yassa sauces, to the table, centering Blackness and the seven principles of Kwanzaa throughout the menu.

Tonya and Kenya spoke to Food Network about their memories, menu and what they hope viewers take away from this modernized presentation of Kwanzaa cooking.

Tell us about some of your earliest memories celebrating Kwanzaa.

KENYA: We’ve been doing this for a long time. Our family has literally been dropping Kwanzaa banners on the outside of our suburban homes since I was a kid, so I’ve only known unapologetic Blackness, even in homogeneously white environments. Our mother is a life-long women’s rights and affirmative action advocate and our father is a distinguished psychologist and one of the foremost scholars on Black mental and emotional health, and our grandparents were life-long members of the NAACP, so the only thing we’ve known is to “walk it like [we] talk it.” The holidays have always been my favorite time of year. Because our family has always prioritized affirmative Black imagery, our home environment is filled with beautiful Black art and the colors of the Pan-African flag (red, black and green) all year round. So when it came time for Christmas decor, the Kinara was always set at the same time as our tree. Being dubbed the “candle lighter” was an honor they usually let me, the baby, assume (with steady-handed help of course). Even our mistletoe was a beautiful hand-sewn Black doll with a kente dress that had a pouch for the mistletoe. We would all take turns reading from a Kwanzaa book that explained the rituals and principles in Kiswahili, and for many years multiple branches of our families would converge together for larger communal Kwanzaa celebrations.

How did you go about developing a modern, seven-day menu for Kwanzaa?

TONYA: I learned through my culinary history research that my family comes from a long line of professional cooks in America. When you go back far enough, it does take you to the plantation kitchens, which is where our great grandmother – who I knew, and had her food and cooked with her – was the last one born in the Maryland county of the tobacco plantation, where our descendants had been for generations going back into the early 1700s. She was an exceptional, amazing and professional cook. She was a chef in a bank and her sisters had restaurants, so it’s natural that we all are foodies. Because I was so immersed in a culture that loved food and drinks, I kind of thought every family was like that. Our special occasion spreads were sometimes omnivorous, with fried chicken and steak or seafood. But they were also very plant-based, lots of vegetables, farm-to-table style (our grandfather grew produce in his garden with lots of seasonal stuff). And as I got older in the world, I realized that society promotes this narrow, limited definition of “Black food” and markets it as soul food. My Black food experience has always been so much bigger than that, so I was really grateful to share what I know with the world through this project.

When it came to Kwanzaa, and the Afrocentricity of it, I knew how vast but untalked-about Black cuisine and cooking was in an American context. But here, we’re really talking about the Pan-African diaspora. And it’s a perfect excuse to go all out in the kitchen because there are seven days to explore a different cuisine from the diaspora. Whether you’re going to Jamaica one day and Nigeria the next day, or mix it up and have a meal where you have West Indian jerk with the calas from New Orleans – it’s so many possibilities. For me, I thought, ‘Oh, this is fun!’ This is a great excuse to broaden everyone’s understanding and look at this in different ways. I asked myself questions: What are the signature foods from these different Black cultures? What are the special occasion celebratory things? How can I educate myself more? And then I learned about the different tamales and pasteles and different Afro-Latin dishes that are made only around that time of the year, and I folded that into the menu development. When Dr. Karenga developed the holiday, he gave hints: you want to eat naturally, make sure your hands are clean, things like that. But he didn’t create a formal menu, and this was a special opportunity to do that.

KENYA: It turns out an endeavor of this magnitude was a really empowering thing – to recognize that we can add to the structure and instruction that already existed around Kwanzaa, with offerings that demonstrate how we plan to advance these cultural practices with what we’ve lived and learned. And I think that’s where Tonya and I both really leaned in with excitement. We respect every ritual that exists to help us define who we are and got really excited when we realized that there’s room in this holiday to really make it our own.

What are some of the ingredients or flavors from the Black diaspora that we’ll see on the menu?

TONYA: Kwanzaa is inherently inclusive. Folx may not know this, but one of the most important influences on Black American food culture is the Nation of Islam. It is for this reason that we didn’t include pork in our Kwanzaa Menu.

You will see ginger on our menu, holiday go-tos like nutmeg and cinnamon, tropical fruit, cassava, greens, crustaceans, staples like black-eyed peas and on-trend items like spirulina. Spirulina is actually from the continent of Africa and has been grown and cultivated by Black women for thousands of years.

There’s a smoky sesame sauce, which I’m reclaiming because the benne (sesame) seeds are native to Africa. We used a lot of garlic and spices and smoked paprika. I even incorporated some African Ashanti pepper and various cloves into a two-way drink. My work centers around ensuring the world knows that ingredients like these are very much elements of Black culture, and that they find their way to the Americas because of the transatlantic slave trade, so I hope viewers receive all the history and intention that went into creating this menu.

KENYA: Food is so important in Black culture and over time has become the center of when and how we gather together, for the good and challenging times. Because of this, what we eat, and most importantly why we are eating it, absolutely matters. I wasn’t always vegan; I’m on year five of my plant-based journey. I believe that converting to a plant-based lifestyle is one of the most revolutionary actions historically disenfranchised people can make, especially because of the potential positive impacts on our health outcomes. Not only did my decision to go vegan change my life, but it helped me connect to my cultural lineage more by making conscious choices and refusing what is forced on me to consume. And to know that being plant-based is being Black, too, is incredibly affirmative, so you’ll see that a few of the menu offerings align with this, in addition to being free of gluten, preservatives and harmful dyes.

TONYA: There’s no other group that is as intrinsically connected to every single facet of American foodways as Black Americans. Whether it be agriculture, the harvesting, the preparation, the birth of industries – no other group is as connected as we are. Black cuisine and culinary practices are on the forefront of trend-setting themes like “farm-to-table” and “seasonal” and “organic” and more. Food is vital to our health and well-being and is foundational in cultivating community and connection. That’s what Kwanzaa does for us, too. During Kwanzaa, we get a unique seven-day opportunity to end and start the year with that acknowledgement, and feast with principled intention.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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