Kwanzaa celebrations going virtual, but recipes keep with tradition

Collards and cabbage made by Miki Conn for Thanksgiving.
Collards and cabbage made by Miki Conn for Thanksgiving.

Like most holidays and celebrations, Kwanzaa will look a little different this year.

Running from Dec. 26 through Jan. 1, Kwanzaa is usually filled with community events, performances, speakers and activities, all culminating with a dinner.

The Hamilton Hill Arts Center has hosted a celebration for decades and was one of the few local organizations to do so until a few years ago, when several organizations in the Capital Region came together to form the Capital Region Kwanzaa Coalition. Since then, each of the organizations involved has hosted an event on one night of Kwanzaa.

“It has come to the point where if not for the virus, people more and more were getting in the habit of showing up each of the seven nights or as many as they could,” said organizer Miki Conn. “You would hear people saying ‘Well, I’m able to go to five this year,’ which is really great because we had started out many years ago as just the one night.”

This time, the Capital Region Kwanzaa Coalition has had to rework its celebrations because of the pandemic. They’ll be hosting a virtual version of the celebrations each day, including the candle-lighting and libations, as well as performances and workshops. The celebrations will be prerecorded and presented on the Arts Center’s website as well as on Facebook.

Due to safety concerns, they’ll have to forgo the big community banquet. However, many families will still enjoy the traditional New Year’s meal, including Conn’s.

When The Gazette spoke with her in early December, Conn already knew what she’d be serving for the holiday.

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“Everyone assumes that I’m going to make greens,” Conn said. It’s a fairly typical dish to have, though her recipe has a twist.

“The way I make greens is a mixture of African American greens and Kenyan greens, because I learned to make them in Kenya as well as grew up learning to make them,” Conn said.

The Schenectady resident lived in Kenya for several years and still uses some of the flavors and cooking techniques she learned about during her time there.

“In the U.S. we don’t use curry powder, while that is a staple in east Africa. That gives it a slightly different flavor,” Conn said.

She also mixes in cabbage with the collard greens.

“It’s about half collards and half cabbage, and it’s chopped up and stir-fried in some oil, and you add water and saute it until it’s tender,” Conn said.



  • 1 1/2 lb. of sukumawiki or collard greens
  • 2 tbs of chopped chilies
  • 1 tbs of fresh chopped ginger
  • 1 tsp of fresh chopped garlic
  • 1/2 tsp of ground cardamom
  • 1 tsp boiling water
  • 1/4 cup of niter kibbeh
  • 1 tsp salt and pepper


Wash and chop greens finely.

Boil in water for 30 minutes. Drain and squeeze dry.

Chop ginger, chilies, garlic and cardamom to a coarse paste.

Sprinkle with boiling water and let stand for a few minutes.

Holding a strainer over the greens, rub paste through.


Another popular dish Conn learned to make in Kenya is isio.

“I always made it because it was easy and inexpensive, and good for a big crowd,” Conn said. “It’s a mixture of corn, red beans, onions, curry powder seasoning, salt and pepper. It’s almost like a meatless chili, and that’s the kind of thing you can stretch endlessly.”


  • Equal quantities of red beans and dry maize
  • Chopped onions
  • Chopped tomatoes
  • Any meat bones available


Boil maize (corn) in water for about an hour and a half.

Add beans that have been soaked in water. Add salt, pepper, onions and tomatoes.

Boil together until everything is tender, usually three to four hours.

While she has plenty of her own recipes when she’s looking for something else to make for Kwanzaa, Conn usually relies on Eric V. Copage’s “Kwanzaa: An African-American Celebration of Culture and Cooking.”

“I get some ideas out of that and try to do something a little different each year. The nice thing about the Kwanzaa cookbook is that it also has African-based recipes,” Conn said.

Among her favorites are fried plantains, sorrel or spiced hibiscus blossom tea, and West African ginger beer.

While the way Kwanzaa is celebrated locally will be different this year, at least the flavors will remain true to tradition.

Kwanzaa origins

The holiday was founded by Maulana Karenga in 1966 as a way to unite and empower the African American community in the aftermath of the Watts riots. The name comes from the phrase “matunda ya kwanza” or “first fruits.”

Each day of the celebration centers on a different principle: Umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity) and imani (faith). On each day, families bring out corresponding symbols and light a candle on the kinara (candleholder).

Locally, as part of the libation and candle-lighting portions of the celebration, volunteers will tell stories that exemplify the principle of the day. Another portion of the libation will honor cultural and personal ancestors, with recordings of people calling out their names.

Organizers are also planning to host virtual workshops and performances throughout the week. For information on the plans for this year, visit or see the Capital Region Kwanzaa Coalition on Facebook.

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