Why the Karamu Feast Is My Favorite Part of Kwanzaa—and a Simple Menu to Celebrate
It's that time of year again when the kinara is placed on the centerpiece and lit with seven black, red and green candles. The ears of corn sit atop the mat symbolizing the children in the house, while the centerpiece basket overflowing with fruit symbolizes the abundance of the harvest. Libation is poured into the Chalice of Unity and offered to guests. Gifts, usually homemade or purchased from Black-owned shops, are exchanged.
Although Kwanzaa is a relatively recent holiday that was only initiated in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, Ph.D., a Black Power activist, it has become a fundamental part of the year's end for many African Americans—a time to celebrate African culture and connect to their roots. The seven-day holiday runs from December 26 through January 1. Kwanzaa celebrants each have their own favorite parts of the holiday. My favorite parts of the holiday are those that speak of the history of Africa and its diaspora and those that bring together family and community.
No part of Kwanzaa does this more than the Karamu Feast on December 31. On that day, folks observing the holiday come together—either in smaller groups as families or in larger ones as communities—to honor the renewal, rededication and resilience that Kwanzaa symbolizes. I savor the ways in which the feast allows for multigenerational transmission of history and culture: how youngsters sit and listen to their elders talk of their pasts and of the common and convoluted history that binds us all.
I delight in the sharing of stories and especially in the communing together over food. And what food it is! Home-cooked dishes calling on culinary traditions from family recipe boxes and far-flung corners of the African diaspora grace the Karamu tables. They too tell tales of traditions shared, of foods grown, of communities nurtured and of just how the ancestors, elders, youths and children are connected in one unbroken chain.
Whether it's fried, boiled, roasted, baked or sautéed, chicken is eaten throughout Africa and the diaspora. In this recipe, chicken thighs are marinated in lemon juice and olive oil before being coated in herbs and broiled. The herbs will take on a slightly blackened color, so don't fret about the appearance.
Get the recipe: Herbed Chicken Thighs
Inspired by a traditional Moroccan salad, which consists of oranges and radishes, this version adds romaine lettuce and a classic vinaigrette. Fresh orange juice adds acidity and brightness to the vinaigrette. Pomegranate seeds bring color and crunch.
Get the recipe: Romaine Salad with Orange & Radish
The addition of toasted pecans gives this French way with string beans a bit of crunch and sweetness as well as a touch of the American South. Try using slender haricots verts for a different twist.
Get the recipe: Garlic-Pecan Green Beans
Plantains are a common ingredient in West African cooking. From street snacks to stews, plantains can be enjoyed at every stage of their maturing process. Green plantains can be used for chips, while yellow ones serve as a starchy side. Here, we use super-ripe black ones where the starch has turned to sugar making them perfect for dessert. Serve these plantains warm for a dessert that all will love.
Get the recipe: Caramelized Ripe Plantains with Dark Rum
This essay is part of the series "Diaspora Dining: Foods of the African Diaspora." In this monthly column with essays and recipes by Jessica B. Harris, Ph.D., we explore the rich culinary traditions of the African diaspora. Harris is a culinary historian and the author of 13 books related to the African diaspora, including Vintage Postcards from the African World (University Press of Mississippi), My Soul Looks Back (Scribner) and High on the Hog (Bloomsbury USA), on which the Netflix documentary series High on the Hog is based. She is the 2020 recipient of the James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award. For more from Harris on EatingWell, see Migration Meals: How African American Food Transformed the Taste of America and her Juneteenth Celebration Menu. Follow her on Instagram @drjessicabharris.
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