Your Guide to Kwanzaa Food Traditions

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We're sharing everything you need to know about Kwanzaa, including the traditions, symbolism, and some tasty Kwanzaa food ideas.

Kwanzaa is a non-religious holiday that celebrates African American heritage and culture across the diaspora. It was initiated in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor and activist. Dr. Karenga wanted to inspire and uplift the black community during the Civil Rights Movement, a time of emotional distress. Kwanzaa became a holiday of unity and celebration of life.

The name of the holiday originates from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, which translates to the “first fruits of the harvest.” Kwanzaa takes place from December 26th to January 1st each year, and a feast is generally held on December 31st. The evening is full of laughter, dancing and, of course, food!

Learn more about the meaning and history of Kwanzaa.

What are popular Kwanzaa traditions?

Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa celebrates the seven principles of Kwanzaa, known as Nguzo Saba. Each night a candle is lit for each principle.

The seven principles are as follows:

  1. Umoja: The unity of the race, community, and family.
  2. Kujichagulia: Self-determination and accountability.
  3. Ujima: Collective responsibility in working together for the benefit of the community.
  4. Ujamaa: Cooperative economics by working together to build businesses.
  5. Nia: Purpose in remembering African and African-American history, customs, and cultures.
  6. Kuumba: Creativity in the community.
  7. Imani: Faith in people.

There are also seven symbols of Kwanzaa:

  1. Mazao: The crops symbolize the harvest.
  2. Mkeka: The mat represents history, tradition, and the foundation on which the community builds.
  3. Kinara: The candleholder symbolizes the roots of the community.
  4. Muhindi: The corn represents the future of children in the community.
  5. Kikombe cha Umoja: The Unity Cup symbolizes the practice of unity.
  6. Mishumaa Saba: The seven candles represent each of the seven principles.
  7. Zawadi: The gifts for children symbolize parental love and commitments maintained by children.

Kwanzaa food often matches the red, black, and green colors of the Bendera, the Black liberation or Pan-African flag. Red represents the struggle of Black people. Black symbolizes pride in the race. Green signifies hope for the future.

Two Kwanzaa foods with significant symbolism are black-eyed peas and collard greens. Black-eyed peas symbolize good luck, while collard greens symbolize fortune. Some of the foods prominently featured in menus are foods that were brought to America via the Transatlantic slave trade, and include yams, peanuts and the aforementioned collard greens.

What is traditional Kwanzaa food?

Ultimately, a traditional Kwanzaa meal is what you want it to be! There are influences from African, Caribbean, South American, and Southern cuisines. There are no right or wrong Kwanzaa foods. Here are some popular foods that are perfect for Kwanzaa.

  • Collard greens are cooked in veggie broth and aromatics for two hours until tender. Many recipes call for the addition of meats and cooking in meat-based broths, but it can easily be enjoyed vegan.
  • Candied yams are sliced and cooked in a pot of butter, white or brown sugar, baking spices, and vanilla extract. The yams caramelize in the pot. They’re usually served with macaroni and cheese and collard greens.
  • Vegan jollof rice is no ordinary rice. It’s an African rice dish packed with tons of flavor from the crushed tomatoes, red onions, green peppers, a hot pepper, tomato paste, spices galore and veggie broth. Traditionally, the dish also includes chicken or beef.
  • Fried plantains are made with very ripe plantains. They’re sliced and pan-fried until caramelized. I love to serve it with jerk chicken, a side of rice and beans, or potato salad.
  • African peanut stew is a delicious and hearty stew made with chicken, peanut butter, tomato paste, ginger, and fresh herbs.
  • Southern peach cobbler is a dessert that’s baked with fresh or canned peaches and topped with dropped biscuits, pie dough, or a cake-like topping. Top with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream. It’s absolutely delicious!
  • Cornbread is a delicious, cornmeal-based bread that’s perfect with collard greens. It’s usually made with butter, milk, eggs, flour, cornmeal, sugar (or none at all), baking powder, and salt. It’s cut into squares or triangles. This dish goes well with meats, fish, macaroni and cheese and coleslaw.
  • Southern fried okra gets dredged in buttermilk then coated in a seasoned cornmeal and flour mixture and deep-fried until golden. It’s crunchy on the outside and tender on the inside.
  • Southern hush puppies are made with a batter of cornmeal, flour, eggs, milk and onion. It gets deep-fried until golden brown so it’s light and tender on the inside and crisp on the outside.
  • Sweet potato pie celebrates the harvest of sweet potatoes. A velvety sweet potato custard filling with warm spices gets baked on top of a pie crust. Now I know I said there’s no right or wrong food for Kwanzaa—but sweet potato pie is an exception. It’s an essential!
  • Southern fried whiting is made with fillets of whiting fish. It’s so tasty that I’m sure it’ll even please fish haters, thanks to its mild fish flavor.
  • Mashed sweet potatoes are mashed with melted butter, pie spice, milk or sometimes even orange juice, and brown sugar. The end result is creamy and slightly thick, with a velvety texture.
  • Macaroni and cheese is a popular Southern side dish. It’s baked with cheese, milk, eggs and spices. The result is a gooey mac and cheese with a crisp, golden brown top.
  • Southern Hoppin’ John is a popular Southern black eyed pea dish that’s usually made for the new year. The aromatics cook in a pot with rice, bacon or ham hock and seasonings.
  • Sausage and chicken gumbo is made with a dark brown roux. Aromatics and seasonings are added. You stir in sausage, chicken, okra and broth—and the result is a flavorful gumbo.
  • Dutch oven fried chicken should be brined in buttermilk to make the chicken tender, with a seasoned flour and egg dredge to make it perfectly flavorful and crispy. We love to serve friend chicken with macaroni and cheese, a salad, buttermilk biscuits, potato salad or rice.
  • Jamaican beef patties are highly seasoned beef patties. The filling gets spooned into a turmeric- or sometimes curry-flavored pastry dough, then baked until golden in color. The meat is tender, while the yellow-colored pastry is flaky. (You won’t be able to eat just one.)
  • Jamaican sweet potato pudding is a less sweet version of the American sweet potato pie, minus the pie crust. The fragrant spiced filling is baked until the middle is a soft flan-like consistency and the top is firm.
  • Jerk chicken gets marinated in jerk seasonings and grilled or baked to perfection. The exterior is crispy, while the meat is juicy. This dish has a bit of kick from the peppers, so serve it with a cool mango and jicama salad, or plantain fritters.
  • Epsis is a spicy seasoning base that’s used in many Haitian recipes. The main ingredients are garlic, fresh herbs, peppers and vinegar. The recipe varies from region to region. Use it to marinate poultry, fish or meats. It’s also delicious in soups and it can be used as a dip.
  • Mofongo is one of Puerto Rico’s most popular dishes. It’s derived from the African dish called fufu. Fufu is a dough mixture of pounded down starchy plantains, yams, or cassava. Mofongo is a dish made of unripe fried green plantains that are mashed together with garlic and pork rinds and then molded into a dome.

If you’re organizing a Kwanzaa celebration this year, first learn about why the holiday is so meaningful to black Americans.

The best Kwanzaa cookbooks

For more Kwanzaa food inspiration, check out this list of legendary cookbooks.

Happy Kwanzaa!

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April Wright
I enjoy developing southern, American comfort and ethnic recipes. I've been featured in Walmart,Pioneer Woman, HuffPost, Parade and Essence to name a few. I love food photography and adore learning everything there is to know about food.