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The Culinary Traditions of Kwanzaa

It's a celebration of family, community and culture.

What food do you eat on Kwanzaa? Well, there isn't one answer, but there sure is a lot to choose from.

A relatively new holiday, Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by activist Maulana Karenga, Ph.D., right in the middle of the civil rights movement as a holiday specifically for African-Americans.
 
The name Kwanzaa comes from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, which means “first fruits,” harkening back to when people collectively harvested fruit and vegetable crops and gave thanks for the bounty of their efforts and for each other.
 
“Kwanzaa is based on the many harvest festivals and rituals practiced across the African continent, during ancient and modern times, that would last about seven days, from the end of one year to the beginning of a new,” says culinary historian Tonya Hopkins on her podcast, “American Food History for All…From a Black Perspective.”
 
There are seven nights of Kwanzaa, from December 26 to January 1, each celebrating a different principle or social value. On the sixth night, Kuumba (meaning “creativity” in Swahili), is the feast.
 
“While there is no set Kwanzaa menu, it is customary to serve African and African-influenced foods for any Kwanzaa meal,” Tonya says.

When Tonya was researching and writing about the foods associated with Kwanzaa for the Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America she spoke with Maulana, who said the first fruits and vegetables of the harvest traditionally included the likes of mango, pineapple, oranges, okra, eggplant and yams, all of which were part of the diet of enslaved Africans who were brought to the Americas. So, the Kuumba feast features a central meal typically from the American continent and surrounding dishes from different African communities.  

That covers everything from jambalaya and Jollof rice, to Canadian groundnut stew and Philadelphia pepper pot soup, to West Indian and South African curry dishes, and much more.  

“It's also a great opportunity to eat and drink together,” she says, “and to explore all kinds of delicious [and] nutritious foods from our bigger and broader culinary heritage.”​

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