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Culture and History in a Bowl

Throw a fest for 6 to 8 guests

Sunday, December 26, 2004; Page M07

Look at a bowl of soup and you'll see the evolution of foods created in remote locations over thousands of years, meant to bring warmth, health and richness into the lives of family, tribe, culture and community. Each one reflects the people of a specific culture, their times of celebration, their passages of life, their most intimate experiences.

One example are the soups associated with the African American holiday tradition of Kwanzaa.

(Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)

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Kwanzaa means "first fruits of the harvest" in the East African dialect Kiswahili. Celebrated from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, it's a time of feasting and giving, but especially a time to reflect on family and community values -- seven of them, one for each day of celebration.

On the first day, families put the kinara, or seven-branched wooden candleholder, in an honored spot. Seven candles -- mishumaa saba -- are placed in it: three red ones on the left, in memory of the blood shed by so many over so many years; three green on the right, in hopes for the future; and one black candle in the center, symbolizing unity and pride. Each night, families gather to light the candles, and then begins a feast of traditional dishes -- often starting with an African soup.

Two great choices for these nights (both featured in my new book, "An Exaltation of Soups") are Creamy Coconut-Banana Soup, or M'tori Supu, from Tanzania, and Okra Soup, or Obe Ile, from Nigeria. The first is made of an earthy, piquant broth and festively topped with plantain chips -- a rich, interesting combination of flavors and textures, sweetness and starch. The second is a beautiful, spicy soup featuring big chunks of red, white and green. The fire of its hot peppers will stimulate the appetite -- and discussion -- for the rest of the Kwanzaa feast to come.

Excerpted and adapted from "An Exaltation of Soups," by Patricia Solley (Three Rivers Press, 2004).

Kwanzaa Soups

Coconut-Banana Soup

3 tablespoons butter

1 small onion, diced

8 cups (2 quarts) rich beef stock (available pre-prepared at supermarkets)

1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1/2 teaspoon white pepper

3 cups peeled and diced potatoes

2 cups peeled and diced plantains

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