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Reflections on a Vegan Kwanzaa

Habari Gani, a traditional Swahili greeting, will be heard across the globe by Kwanzaa celebrants when they begin their seven-day holiday on December 26th. Torn from their homeland during the 16th to 19th centuries, Africans were packed into crude vessels and shipped to America, the Caribbean, and parts of Latin America as slaves to work on plantations. Isolated from their families, their homes, and their traditions, over time the Africans lost their cultural identity, their feeling of community, and their pride.

Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor and chair of the Department of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach, noting how African Americans still struggle to find acceptance within the American meltingpot, recognized the need for a holiday that could bring black people together to celebrate their heritage. In 1966 he created Kwanzaa, a celebration that builds pride, reflection, and joy and creates a sense of community that pays homage to African American ancestry. The celebration and its rituals are designed to fulfill the social and spiritual needs of African Americans. While still a new tradition, Kwanzaa, which means "first fruits" in Swahili, is spreading to the diaspora of African peoples living in Haiti, Brazil, Jamaica, Latin America, the United States, and throughout the globe.

The week-long celebration occurs at the end of the year when the country is caught up in a frenzy of shopping, gift giving, and the commercialism of the corporate world. And while the Kwanzaa celebration from December 26 to January 1 includes some gift giving, the holiday was conceived to set aside this special time for families and friends to gather together and reflect on self-affirmation, introspection, community, culture, and family.

The holiday's seven nights, seven principles, and seven symbols have origins borrowed from harvest traditions throughout the African continent. While there are some established rituals, each family may choose to honor the principles in its own way.

Nguzo Sabah, the seven principles of Kwanzaa, include :

  1. Umoja, unity (first night)
  2. Kujichagulia, Self-Determination (second night)
  3. Ujima, Collective Work and Responsibility (third night)
  4. Ujamaa, Cooperative Economics (fourth night)
  5. Nia, Purpose (fifth night)
  6. Kuumba, Creativity (sixth night)
  7. Imani, Faith (seventh night)

The seven symbols are representative of many aspects of African heritage:

  1. Mazao, the fruits and vegetables like squashes and sweet potatoes that are typically harvested in Africa
  2. Mkeka, the mat on which the symbols are displayed represents the foundations of their African culture
  3. Kinara, the seven-branch candelabra that holds red, black, and green candles, serves as a reminder to honor ancestors
  4. Muhindi, the ears of corn that represent men while the kernels represent the number of children in the home and the potential of perpetuity
  5. Kikombe Cha Umoja, a communal cup that represents unity among African Americans
  6. Zawadi, gifts such as books or handmade items given in recognition of special accomplishments of educational or cultural value or promises kept
  7. Kuumba, the creativity that may be expressed with culturally based handmade gifts.

Culturally focused, Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday but embraces all religions. Feasting is an integral part of the Kwanzaa holiday. Some families, however, fast from sunrise to sunset and break the fast with the evening celebration. When families gather around the table, a special bond occurs that seals their unity. And when families bustle around the kitchen to cook the meal together, the celebration takes on a deeper, more joyful meaning.

Some families may not have the opportunity to celebrate with a feast each night and save the last night that culminates the holiday with an evening of feasting, singing, dancing, poetry, drumming, and generally enjoying the fulfillment the meaningful celebration brings.

Following are several tasty dishes, some with traditional roots and some that reflect a more current array of celebration foods. And as each celebration concludes, family and friends say "Kwaheri," a Swahili expression of departing good wishes.

After dining at a Ghanian restaurant where we ravished a luscious, spicy peanut soup made with herbs and spices brought from Ghana, I came home inspired to recreate those enticing flavors. While my creation doesn't contain all the traditional African seasonings, the resulting soup actually does come pretty close to tasting like the real thing. Those who enjoy exotic flavors and a touch of spice might possibly want to make an entire meal of this hearty soup. I consider this one of my very favorite no-fail recipes.

African Peanut Soup is one of the delicious recipes from Zel Allen's cookbook The Nut Gourmet: Nourishing Nuts for Every Occasion published by Book Publishing Company in 2006.

African Peanut Soup


    Yield: 6 servings

    2 pounds (900g) Roma tomatoes, chopped
    2 medium onions, chopped
    6 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
    2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

    5 cups (1.25 liters) water
    1 8-ounce (225g) can tomato sauce
    1/2 cup (120 ml) fresh mint leaves, minced, divided
    1 tablespoon chili powder
    2 teaspoons ground cumin
    1 3/4 teaspoons salt
    1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes or to taste

    2 cups (480 ml) finely chopped Swiss chard or spinach
    3/4 cup (180 ml) chunky, unsalted, natural peanut butter

    1/4 cup (60 ml) crushed roasted peanuts

  1. Combine the tomatoes, onions, garlic, and olive oil in a large stockpot and cook and stir over high heat for about 5 minutes, or until the tomatoes are softened and the onions are transparent. Turn the heat down to a simmer.
  2. Add the water, tomato sauce, 3 tablespoons of the mint leaves, chili powder, cumin, salt, and red pepper, and simmer for 10 to 12 minutes.
  3. Add the Swiss chard and peanut butter and cook 3 to 4 minutes, stirring constantly to distribute the peanut butter. The soup will thicken slightly.
  4. To serve, spoon the soup into bowls and garnish with a pinch or two of the remaining mint leaves and crushed peanuts.

Instead of packing your suitcases, simply put on an apron, and take a culinary tour through Africa where the varied cuisines are earthy, highly-seasoned, and very hearty. For a seductive meal, meet up with a kabocha squash and serve this robust stew with a cooked grain like brown rice or millet, cooked spiced lentils, a tossed salad, and some whole-grain bread.

African Pumpking Stew


Yield: 5 to 6 servings

    1/2 small kabocha squash (pumpkin), about 3 pounds (1.36 kilograms)

    1 large carrot, peeled
    1 very large red onion or 2 medium, coarsely chopped

    1 pound (450g) tomatoes, diced
    1 cup (240 ml) water
    1 1/4 teaspoons salt
    1 teaspoon ground coriander
    1 teaspoon ground cumin
    1 teaspoon chili powder
    1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
    1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
    Freshly ground black pepper

    1/4 cup (60 ml) roasted, unsalted peanuts, coarsely chopped, divided

  1. Wash the pumpkin and cut it in half. Discard the seeds or roast them if desired. It is not necessary to remove the skin, but if you prefer to peel the pumpkin, place the cut side down on a cutting board and hold a sharp, firm-bladed chef's knife in a horizontal position with the blade pointing away from you. Place it on the highest point of the pumpkin and use a pushing motion to cut away strips of the peel.
  2. Cut the pumpkin into 1-inch (2.5 cm) cubes, place them in a steamer, and steam them until tender but still firm, about 8 to 12 minutes. Set aside.
  3. Mince the carrot and onion in a food processor and transfer them to a large, deep skillet.
  4. Add the tomatoes, water, salt, coriander, cumin, chili powder, thyme, cloves, and pepper to the skillet, and simmer about 30 minutes or until the vegetables are softened. Adjust the seasonings if needed.
  5. Add the steamed pumpkin and half the peanuts, and heat through for a minute or two to combine the flavors.
  6. Transfer the stew to an attractive serving bowl, and sprinkle with the remaining peanuts.

New Years Day holds special promise in the Southern part of the U.S.. An old tradition brings many diners to the table to eat black-eyed peas with the hope of good fortune in the coming year. Cookbook author Jessica Harris suggests adding a dime to the pot. The one who finds it in his dish is sure to have good luck. Some Southerners say the black-eyed peas represent copper, while the turnip greens symbolize money. In some families, each pea eaten equals a penny's worth of good luck, others say a dollar's worth. Black-eyed peas are a humble food that also symbolizes humility. If a person eats one black-eyed pea every day of the year, will he have 365 days of good luck? Perhaps!

Hoppin John


Yield: 6 to 8 servings

    2 cups (480 ml) black-eyed peas
    1 quart (1 liter)water
    1 clove garlic, finely minced
    1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
    3/4 teaspoon salt
    1/2 to 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes or hot sauce

    2 1/4 cups (540 ml) water
    1 cup (240 ml) Basmati brown rice
    1 teaspoon salt

    1 medium sweet onion, chopped
    3 to 4 tablespoons water

    1/3 cup (80 ml) vegan bacon bits (Sunrich Farms Baco-Bits)
    1 teaspoon hickory smoke seasoning (liquid smoke)

  1. Pick over the peas and discard any broken or spoiled beans. Rinse the peas and drain. Soak them in water to cover by 3 inches (7.5 cm) for 8 hours or overnight. Drain and rinse the peas.
  2. Transfer the soaked peas to a 10 to 12-quart (10 to 12 liter) stockpot. Add the water, garlic, olive oil, salt, and pepper flakes and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the peas are tender, adding small amounts of water as needed. Do not cook the peas dry.
  3. While the peas are cooking, combine the water, rice, and salt in a 2-quart (2 liter) saucepan. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low and steam for 40 to 50 minutes, or until the rice is tender and all the water is absorbed.
  4. Combine the chopped onions and water in a skillet and cook over high heat, stirring constantly, until the onions turn golden, about 8 to 10 minutes. Set aside.
  5. When the peas are tender, make sure there is at least 1 cup (240 ml) of liquid in the pot. Add the cooked rice and onions to the peas.
  6. Then add the bacon bits and hickory smoke seasoning and stir well to distribute all the ingredients. Adjust seasonings if needed.

A hallowed dish in the African American community, this long-standing Southern comfort favorite is an easy sell with the kids and the adults as well. With its roots dating back to the early 1800s, this simple blend of pasta and cheese with a spicy kick has evolved into revered soul food. And when you choose a whole-grain pasta, such as whole wheat, quinoa, kamut, spelt, or rye found at most natural food markets, you can be assured the extra fiber will make this dish a little healthier.

Mac'n' Cheese


Yield: 4 servings

    1/2 pound ((225g) whole-grain penne-style pasta

    1 large onion, coarsely chopped
    1/4 cup (60 ml) water
    1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

    1 1/2 cups (360 ml) unsweetened soymilk
    3/4 teaspoon salt
    Dash hot sauce
    Freshly ground black pepper

    2 tablespoons cornstarch
    2 tablespoons water

    1 1/4 cups (300 ml) shredded vegan cheddar or nacho flavored cheese
    1 cup (240 ml) shredded vegan mozzarella or Jack cheese
    2 tablespoons vegan Parmesan

    1/4 cup fine bread crumbs

  1. Lightly oil a 3-quart (3 liter) casserole and preheat the oven to 350 degrees (Gas Mark 4).
  2. Cook the pasta according to the manufacturer's instructions, drain, and transfer to the casserole.
  3. Combine the onion, water, and olive oil in a deep, non-stick skillet. Cook and stir over medium-high heat for about 5 to 8 minutes until the onions are nicely browned and all the liquid is absorbed. Add the onions to the pasta and toss well.
  4. TO MAKE THE SAUCE, combine the soymilk, salt, hot sauce, and pepper in a 2-quart (2 liter) saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Watch carefully to avoid a messy boil-over, turning the heat down slightly if needed.
  5. Thicken the sauce by combining the cornstarch and water in a small bowl or cup. Stir to a thin paste and add to the gently bubbling soymilk a little at a time, stirring constantly, until thickened, about 1 minute.
  6. Add the cheddar, mozzarella, and the Parmesan cheeses and stir until the cheese is completely melted, about 3 minutes. Adjust the seasoning if needed.
  7. Pour the sauce over the pasta and onions and sprinkle with the bread crumbs. Bake for 20 minutes until bubbling hot.

Good old traditional eats, mustard greens take on special meaning when eaten on New Year's day. Those humble greens symbolize money when eaten along with black-eyed peas on the first day of the New Year. An uncomplicated dish, greens deliver great nutritional benefits and a good dose of calcium. Consider serving this dish with cornbread to mop up the "pot likker."

Mustard Greens with Tempeh Bacon


Yield: 4 servings

    1 bunch mustard greens (about 1/2 pound or 225g)
    1 1/2 cups (360 ml) water
    1 cup (240 ml) coarsely chopped onions
    2 cloves garlic, minced
    3/4 teaspoon organic sugar
    1/2 teaspoon salt

    2 teaspoons canola oil
    1/3 cup (80 ml) chopped tempeh bacon

  1. Wash the mustard greens thoroughly. Remove the tough stems, coarsely chop the leaves, and place them in a 4-quart (4 liter) saucepan.
  2. Add the water, onions, organic sugar, and salt and cover the saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat to low, and steam for 30 to 45 minutes, or until the greens are tender.
  3. While the greens are cooking, heat the canola oil in a 10-inch (25 cm) skillet over high heat. Add the tempeh bacon and toss frequently for about 4 or 5 minutes, or until the bacon is almost crisp.
  4. Just before serving, stir the bacon pieces into the cooked greens. Lift the greens out of the pot with a slotted spoon and put them into a serving bowl. Pour the "pot likker" into another bowl so guests can dip their cornbread into it, if desired.

This stew is rather tame for a Cajun dish. But those who like their N'awlins cuisine a little perkier can toss in more of the Cajun seasoning, stir well, and cook a few minutes longer to combine the flavors. To serve family style, cook up a batch of brown rice and spoon the okra stew over the top. You can also serve the stew in individual bowls as a side dish. Traditionally the onions and peppers would be fried in oil before adding the remaining ingredients. Omitting the oil makes this dish truly low calorie and low fat. If you don't have a kitchen scale at home, weigh the tomatoes and okra when you purchase them at the market in order to have the proper quantities. Measuring by weight gives more consistent results in a recipe.


Yield: 6 servings

    1 1/4 pounds (560g) fresh tomatoes, coarsely chopped
    1 1/4 pounds (560g) fresh okra, washed, stem ends trimmed off
    1 large purple onion, coarsely chopped
    1 red bell pepper, diced
    2 large cloves garlic, minced
    1/2 teaspoon Cajun seasoning
    1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
    1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
    1/2 teaspoon dried marjoram
    1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste
    1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed in a mortar and pestle
    Freshly ground black pepper to taste

    2 cups (480 ml) water

    2 tablespoons cornstarch
    2 tablespoons water

  1. Combine the tomatoes, okra, onion, bell pepper, garlic, Cajun seasoning, thyme, oregano, marjoram, salt, fennel seeds, and pepper in a large, deep skillet.
  2. Pour the 2 cups (480 ml) of water over the vegetables and cook over high heat, stirring frequently, for 7 to 10 minutes, or until the okra feels tender when gently pierced with a fork.
  3. Combine cornstarch and water in a small bowl or cup and stir thoroughly to make a smooth, runny paste. Reduce the heat slightly and add the paste to the gently bubbling okra stew a little at a time, stirring constantly, until thickened to desired consistency. Adjust seasonings if needed and serve.

Fresh okra comes to market in mid-summer after basking in the hot sun until it's ready for harvesting. But during the winter months, turn to frozen okra for this tasty dish. Steaming and stir-frying are the easiest and most popular ways to prepare this unique vegetable. Enjoy it in soups, stir fries, casseroles, and in traditional picante Southern dishes like this one. Okra has its roots in Africa, making it a traditional food to serve during Kwanzaa. Since the holiday creates a special time to pay homage to one's ancestors, it becomes a historically meaningful time to serve some of the foods brought to the U.S. from Africa.

Okra Creole


Yield: 8 servings

    1 large onion, sliced
    1 small green bell pepper, chopped
    1/4 cup water
    1 clove garlic
    1 bay leaf
    1/2 teaspoon thyme
    1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or pinch cayenne

    2 to 3 medium tomatoes, coarsely chopped
    1 cup (240 ml) fresh, canned, or frozen corn kernels, thawed

    20 fresh okra pods, topped, tailed and sliced or left whole, or 2 pounds (2 kilos) frozen cut or whole okra, thawed
    Freshlly ground pepper
    1 green onion, sliced, for garnish

  1. Combine the onion, bell pepper, water, garlic, bay leaf, thyme, and pepper flakes in a heavy skillet and cook and stir over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes, or until the vegetables are just softened. Add 1 or more tablespoons of water as needed to cook the vegetables and prevent burning.
  2. Add the tomatoes and corn. Decrease the heat to medium and cook another 7 to 10 minutes to soften the tomatoes and create a thick sauce.
  3. Add the okra and cook about 3 minutes, or until the okra is just tender. Season with salt and pepper and transfer to a serving bowl. Sprinkle with sliced green onion, if desired.

Perfect veggie comfort food, this light, autumn-inspired stew is just right for serving with a hearty chunk of whole grain bread to mop up the tasty pan juices. It even tastes better when made a day ahead. While pumpkin is closely associated with pumpkin pie, this beautiful squash can also lay the foundation for a hearty homemade family dish.


Yield: 4 to 6 servings

    1/4 cup (60 ml) water
    1 large onion, chopped
    3 cups (720 ml) chopped tomatoes
    1 pound (450g) firm tofu, crumbled
    1/3 cup (80 ml) veggie bacon bits
    4 cups (1 liter) peeled, chopped pumpkin

    Garlic powder
    Crushed oregano

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees (Gas Mark 4) and have ready a 7 x 11-inch (17.5 x 28 cm) glass baking dish.
  2. Pour the water into the baking dish and set aside. Prepare the onion, tomatoes, tofu, bacon bits, and pumpkin in individual bowls in preparation for layering the stew.
  3. Arrange 1/2 of the onions and 1/2 of the tomatoes on the bottom of the baking dish. Season generously with the salt, pepper, garlic powder, and crushed oregano.
  4. Next layer all of the tofu followed by 1/2 of the bacon bits.
  5. Arrange all of the pumpkin over the bacon bits and season generously with salt, pepper, garlic powder, and crushed oregano.
  6. Top with the remaining onions and tomatoes and season lightly.
  7. Sprinkle the remaining bacon over the top and cover the dish with aluminum foil, shiny side down.
  8. Bake for 1 hour, lift the foil, and spoon the pan juices over the top. Taste for seasoning and adjust if needed. Replace the foil and bake for another 20 minutes, or until the pumpkin is fork tender. Spoon the stew into bowls and include some of the pan juices.

This unique, gluten-free corn bread tastes deliciously rich and offers a hearty, moist, and dense texture. While many corn bread recipes tend to be quite dry and crumbly, this one relies on ripe bananas to guarantee its moistness.


Yield: 12 generous servings

    1 1/2 cups (360 ml) yellow cornmeal
    1 1/2 cups (360 ml) plus 3 tablespoons soya powder*
    1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
    1 teaspoon salt

    1 1/4 cups (300 ml) plus 2 tablespoons water
    1/2 cup (120 ml) plus 2 tablespoons regular or unsweetened soy milk
    2 tablespoons organic sugar
    2 tablespoons canola oil
    2 tablespoons liquid lecithin**

    3/4 cup (180 ml) ripe banana, thoroughly mashed

  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees (Gas Mark 3) and lightly oil an 8-inch (15 cm) square glass baking dish.
  2. Combine the cornmeal, soya powder, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl and mix to distribute the ingredients evenly.
  3. Combine the water, soymilk, organic sugar, canola oil, and lecithin in a small bowl, stir thoroughly, and add to the dry ingredients, mixing well.
  4. Add the mashed banana and mix well to incorporate ingredients thoroughly. Spoon the corn bread batter into the prepared baking dish.
  5. Bake for 50 to 55 minutes and test by inserting a toothpick into the center of the cornbread. The toothpick should come out dry. If it is slightly moist, bake for another 5 to 8 minutes. Cut into squares and serve.

*Soya powder differs from soy flour because it is precooked and very finely ground.

**When cleaning up liquid lecithin, first wipe the measuring spoon with a paper towel, and then wash it. Do the same with the bowl that held the liquid ingredients. This stuff is so sticky it's unbelievable. Simply washing the utensils in soapy water doesn't work without wiping them off first.

Enhanced with zesty spices of the season, this delectable treat is pure delight to present at dessert time and demonstrates the great versatility yams offer at the table from a main dish ingredient to side dish to putting the finishing touch on the meal. Count on this tantalizing pie to create the perfect finish to a fulfilling celebration. Make it a day ahead to allow it to firm in the refrigerator. If desired, serve with a dollop of vegan whipped cream and top it with a sprinkle of nutmeg.

Sweet Potato Pie


Yield: 6 to 8 servings


    1 1/2 cups (360 ml) whole-wheat pastry flour
    1/2 cup (120 ml) flaxseed meal
    2 tablespoons organic sugar
    1/2 teaspoon salt

    1/2 cup (120 ml) organic canola oil
    1/4 cup (60 ml) plus 1 tablespoon water

    2 pounds (1 kilo) yams, peeled and sliced 1/2-inch thick

    1 cup (240 ml) unsweetened soymilk
    3/4 cup (180 ml) organic sugar
    1/4 cup (60 ml) arrowroot powder
    1 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
    1 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
    1 teaspoon vanilla extract
    1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
    Pinch salt

Sweet Potato Pie

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees (Gas Mark 4) and have ready a 9-inch (23 cm) pie pan.
  2. TO MAKE THE CRUST, combine the flour, flaxseed meal, sugar, and salt in the food processor and pulse to distribute the ingredients thoroughly. Add the canola oil and water and pulse and process until well mixed. You may have to stop the machine and redistribute the ingredients and process again. Alternatively, combine the dry ingredients in a medium bowl, add the oil and water and mix thoroughly by hand.
  3. Spoon the crust mixture into the pie pan and use your fingers to press it into the bottom and sides of the pie pan. Set aside while preparing the filling.
  4. TO MAKE THE FILLING, place the sliced yams in a steamer, cover, and steam about 10 to 15 minutes, or until fork tender. Transfer the cooked yams to a large bowl and mash them well with a potato masher or a fork.
  5. While the yams are steaming, place the soymilk, sugar, arrowroot powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, ginger, and salt in the blender and process until smooth and creamy. Add the soymilk mixture to the mashed yams and mix until thoroughly incorporated.
  6. Spoon the yam mixture into the prepared pie crust and smooth the top with the back of a spoon. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes. Cool completely and refrigerate for several hours or overnight.

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Vegetarians in Paradise