Today begins the week-long observance of Kwanzaa, a holiday created during the awakening of the '60s for African-Americans to celebrate their heritage and the values that strengthen black families and communities.

While the evening meal on each of the seven days is the time for discussing in turn each of the seven principles of blackness, it is on the sixth evening, New Year's Eve, that food has a central role.

Celebrants emphasize creativity (kuumba) on that day, while sharing their homes, music and food with friends, family and neighbors, as their ancestors in Africa did at harvest time. They make gifts and prepare nourishing meals, many from western Africa.

Kwanzaa is, in fact, a Swahili word meaning "first fruit," and when black nationalist Maulana Ron Karenga created and named the holiday in 1966 it was to emphasize that the basic principles found in producing the harvest are vital to building and maintaining communities.

The gala Kawanzaa feast (karamu), to be celebrated on New Year's Eve with community gatherings in churches and independent black schools, will stress not only food and drink but also dance and music. While Kwanzaa is still too new to have any dishes entrenched as traditional, according to celebrants, black-eyed peas, beans and rice, and vegetarian dishes are popular "because they are a carryover from the Emancipation Proclamation of Jan. 1, 1863 and because black people should eat healthy foods," says Bernida Thompson, principal of the Roots Activity Learning Center in the District.

"At the end of slavery, we ate a lot of pork and salt and our bood pressure went up," she adds. "So now we have apples, oranges, bananas and kiwis in the fruit bowl on the Kwanzaa table and we eat soy-protein dishes on Kwanzaa's last day, such as barbecued tofu, corn on the cob or cream of corn."

A Kwanzaa dinner might include West African or Caribbean fare, such as Kwanzaa Salad and African groundnut stew with peanuts (recipes follow), akotonshi (stuffed crabs) from Ghana, grilled plantain, yam balls, yataklete kilkil (spiced vegetables) from Ethiopia, fufu (potato bread) from Ghana, bidia (stiff porridge) from Zaire, koushry (rice and lentils) from Egypt, chlada felfel (tomato and green pepper salad) from Algeria and for dessert Morocco's orange dessert salad or Nigeria's fried pastries or Tanzania's mango snow. A drink at this Kwanzaa meal could be Egypt's yansoon with aniseed or Morocco's almond milk.

Among the symbols of Kwanzaa on the table is the seven-place candle holder (kinara) with one candle for each of the seven principles.

"Kwanzaa gives African Americans their own heritage," says Thompson. "All ethnic groups have their own cultural holidays. Kwanzaa was created so African-Americans will also have a time to celebrate and teach their children knowledge and an appreciation of their glorious heritage."

Thompson continues, "We celebrate the accomplishments we've made during the year, give thanks to our ancestors and reaffirm beliefs that our ancestors should be respected. We make a commitment to live our lives within the seven principles."

Today's principle is unity (umoja) of family, community, nation and race and tomorrow's is self-determination (Kujichagulia) as a people. Friday's principle is of collective work and responsibility (ujima), Saturday's is for cooperative economics (ujamaa) and Sunday's is to have purpose (nia) and goals. The final principle is to have faith (imani) or spiritual beliefs to hold us together as a nation of people," says Joyce Brooks, a learning disabilities teacher at Woodridge Elementary School.

Even though Kwanzaa observances often include art shows, poetry readings, concerts and plays, it has been "mislabeled a black Christmas and an alternative to Christmas," says Abena Walker, principal of the African Learning Center.

Thompson agrees: "It's not a substitute for Christmas; it's not anti-Christian or anti-America. It's a celebration of African-American heritage," which like Christmas includes the giving of cards. "As many kinds of Christmas cards that you might find in a store," says Thompson, "you'll find Kwanzaa cards in stores specializing in African-American items."

KWANZAA SALAD (6 servings)

2 cups diced cooked turkey

1 cup diced celery

2 red delicious apples, diced

1/4 cup golden raisins

1 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup finely chopped yellow onion

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1/2 cup sour cream

1 tablespoon orange juice

About 3 cups salad greens, for serving

4 navel oranges, peeled and sliced

2 purple onions, cut in rings

In a large bowl combine turkey, celery, apples, raisins, salt and onion; stir to blend. In a small mixing bowl combine mayonnaise, sour cream and orange juice. Spoon into turkey mixture; toss well. Arrange on salad greens. Place orange slices and onion rings around the edge of the bowl.

Per serving: 428 calories, 18 gm protein, 47 gm carbohydrates, 21 gm fat, 5 gm saturated fat, 52 mg cholesterol, 520 mg sodium.

From "Griots' Cookbook" by Elmira M. Washington, et. al. (C.H. Fairfax, 1985)) GROUNDNUT STEW (6 servings)

"Groundnuts" are what we call peanuts. They are a source of protein and fat, besides being a good way to thicken and enrich stews. Recipes for groundnut stews come from all over Africa. Some of the recipes prepared in Colonial Williamsburg today reflect this heritage. This recipe is from Uganda.

1 chicken, or use chicken thighs, about 2 1/2 pounds

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/4 cup butter

1 medium onion

3/4 cup peanut butter

1 egg yolk

About 1/2 cup chopped parsley, for garnish

Cut up the chicken. Remove as much skin as possible. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and cayenne. Melt the butter in a large pot. Add the onions and chicken. Stir well and add 1-1 1/2 cups of water. Turn the heat very low and cover the pot. Cook for 20 minutes.

Measure the peanut butter into a bowl. Remove about a cup of the hot liquid and mix it with the peanut butter until smooth. Mix in the egg yolk. Add the peanut butter to the pot. Simmer slowly until chicken is done. Garnish with chopped parsley.

Per serving: 675 calories, 59 gm protein, 8 gm carbohydrates, 46 gm fat, 13 gm saturated fat, 244 mg cholesterol, 754 mg sodium.

Adapted from "The AfricaNews Cookbook", by Africa News Service, Inc. (Penguin Books, 1985) VEGETABLE MAFESTART NOTE: END NOTE (8 servings)

2 large onions, finely chopped

4 tablespoon peanut oil

2 cups pumpkin, winter squash, or sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped in chunks

4 small or 2 large turnips

4 medium potatoes, quartered

2 large carrots, chopped in chunks

1/2 of a small cabbage, coarsely chopped

2 large tomatoes, quartered

About 2 cups fresh leafy greens (spinach, Swiss chard, turnip greens, etc.), or 1 small package frozen greens

2 chili peppers, or 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 cups tomato sauce

3/4 cup peanut butter

Brown the onions in moderately hot oil in a large, heavy skillet or stew pot. Add the vegetables, one at a time, saute'ing each for a minute or so before adding another.

Stir in tomato sauce, along with about a cup of water, reduce heat, and simmer until all the vegetables are tender. Spoon out about half a cup of the hot broth and mix it with the peanut butter to make a smooth paste. Add to the pot, and simmer for another 10 to 15 minutes. Serve over rice or a stiff porridge.

Per serving: 328 calories, 11 gm protein, 33 gm carbohydrates, 20 gm fat, 3 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 524 mg sodium.

From "The AfricaNews Cookbook" by Africa News Service, Inc. (Penguin, 1985) Carolyn Hughes Crowley is a Washington-based freelance writer.