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History of Kwanzaa food

Kwanzaa wouldn’t be complete without soul food dishes and African-inspired meals on the table. Here’s a look at what to serve during this week-long holiday that celebrates African heritage.

Groundnut stew

When it comes to food, Kwanzaa is a delicious tribute to soul food, African recipes and even Caribbean flavors. Picture a mix of traditional and modern dishes, including fried okra, yassa chicken, Creole gumbo and sweet potato biscuits.

Good thing it’s not all crammed into one holiday meal. Kwanzaa, a celebration of African heritage, is a week long, from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1.

Kwanzaa is a relatively new holiday — just 45 years old. It was started by Maulana Karenga, a professor and activist, in 1966 as a non-religious holiday for people of African descent worldwide.

It isn’t meant to replace Christmas — in fact, some choose to celebrate both. Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa, starting the day after Christmas, is dedicated to a principal, from self-determination to creativity.

Food plays an important role because Kwanzaa is a nod to harvest celebrations in Africa, when communities honor crops and laborers. Karamu, a Kwanzaa feast on Dec. 31, often involves a spread of fresh fruits and vegetables. In fact, the word Kwanzaa is from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, which means “first fruits of the harvest.”

These recipes for Hoppin’ John, a Southern dish, and Groundnut Stew, an African meal, are perfect for Kwanzaa:

Groundnut stew

The hallmark of this West African stew is the thick sauce, a combination of tomato and peanut butter that coats the chicken and vegetables. The protein in groundnut stew varies by region: You’ll find chicken, lamb, beef or fish as the main ingredient. For a family-friendly groundnut stew recipe, try this recipe for groundnut stew with chicken from Food & Wine:

Serves 4


  • 2 tablespoons cooking oil, more if needed
  • 1 chicken (3 to 3-1/2 pounds), cut into 8 pieces
  • 1-3/4 teaspoons salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 cup canned crushed tomatoes, drained
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne
  • 2-3/4 cups water
  • 1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
  • 1 (10 ounce) package frozen sliced okra


  1. In a large pot, heat the oil over moderately high heat. Season the chicken pieces with 1/4 teaspoon each of the salt and black pepper. Cook until browned, turning, about eight minutes in all. Remove. Pour off all but one tablespoon fat from the pot.
  2. Reduce the heat to moderately low. Add the onion to the pot and cook, stirring occasionally, until starting to soften, about three minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and then the tomatoes and cayenne. Return the chicken legs and thighs to the pot and stir in two cups of the water. Bring to a simmer and cook, partially covered, for 10 minutes.
  3. Whisk together the peanut butter and the remaining 3/4 cup water until smooth. Add this mixture to the stew along with the chicken breasts and wings, the okra and the remaining 1-1/2 teaspoons of salt and 1/4 of teaspoon black pepper. Cook, partially covered, until the okra is just done, about 10 minutes.
  4. Serve the stew with rice.

Hoppin’ John

Hoppin’ John, a Southern dish of black-eyed peas, rice and bacon or ham, is eaten on New Year’s Day for luck. It has roots as a West African dish, but it’s a soul food staple, too.

The New Year’s Southern saying goes: Peas for pennies, greens for dollars and cornbread for gold. This Hoppin’ John recipe by Emeril Lagasse is one part of the good luck trifecta. Serve with collard greens and cornbread on Jan. 1, and bring on the riches in 2012.

Serves 10


  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 large ham hock
  • 1 cup onion, chopped
  • 1/2 cup celery, chopped
  • 1/2 cup green pepper, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon chopped garlic
  • 1 pound black-eyed peas, soaked overnight and rinsed
  • 1 quart chicken stock
  • Bay leaf
  • 1 teaspoon dry thyme leaves
  • Salt, black pepper and cayenne
  • 3 tablespoons finely chopped green onion
  • 3 cups steamed white rice


  1. Heat oil in a large soup pot, add the ham hock and sear on all sides for four minutes. Add the onion, celery, green pepper and garlic; cook for four minutes.
  2. Add the black-eyed peas, stock, bay leaves, thyme and seasonings. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 40 minutes, or until the peas are creamy and tender, stirring occasionally. If the liquid evaporates, add more water or stock.
  3. Adjust seasonings and garnish with green onions. Serve over rice.

More Southern recipes

Southern collard greens recipe
Easy skillet fried chicken
Sauteed okra side dish

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