A wed­ding how-to

The right food and aus­pi­cious date (tong­shu) are start­ing points

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - By PAULINE D LOH paulined@chi­nadaily.com.cn

It all starts with two, but in Chi­nese cul­ture get­ting mar­ried of­ten in­volves im­me­di­ate and ex­tended fam­ily, fol­lowed by whole clans of friends and rel­a­tives.

As al­ways, food is cen­tral to the cel­e­bra­tions, and the wed­ding feast is an elab­o­rate af­fair in­volv­ing hun­dreds of peo­ple.

It must start with the choos­ing of an aus­pi­cious date. The el­derly sages in the fam­ily put their heads to­gether and re­fer to an al­manac called the tong­shu, af­ter care­fully scru­ti­niz­ing the an­i­mal zo­diac signs of the bride and groom, right down to their dates and time of birth.

The most pop­u­lar months are the even-num­bered lu­nar months like the sec­ond, sixth, eighth, 10th or 12th months. Odd months that co­in­cide with ma­jor fes­ti­vals are gen­er­ally avoided.

For ex­am­ple, Tomb Sweep­ing Day falls in the third lu­nar month; Dragon Boat Fes­ti­val, com­mem­o­rat­ing the death of the poet-pa­triot Qu Yuan, is in the fifth lu­nar month; and the sev­enth lu­nar month has Hun­gry Ghosts Fes­ti­val, the Chi­nese an­swer to Hal­loween.

The zo­diac year is an­other fac­tor con­sid­ered. The years of the Sheep, Tiger and Snake are avoided, while Dragon, Mon­key and Pig years are happy choices. The cal­cu­la­tions are care­ful and even the year fol­low­ing is con­sid­ered, just in case the happy cou­ple de­cide to have a child im­me­di­ately.

Af­ter the date is set, the next task is to choose the venue for the wed­ding feast. Good restau­rants for wed­ding din­ners are booked way in ad­vance — as much as a year ahead.

Lo­ca­tion and cost are con­sid­er­a­tions, cer­tainly, but more im­por­tant than all that is that the feast has to be a pre­sentable dis­play be­fore gath­ered friends and rel­a­tives.

In some cases, it is also an oc­ca­sion to “re­pay”. A lot of money changes hands in the form of gifts to the new­ly­weds, all dis­cretely packed into bright red en­velopes. It is an un­spo­ken rule that th­ese gifts will be metic­u­lously recorded and a sim­i­lar amount re­turned at the ap­pro­pri­ate time, like when the well-wisher mar­ries or mar­ries off a son or daugh­ter.

To a cer­tain ex­tent, it’s like a ton­tine sys­tem, with money go­ing to­ward the cost of the dinner in a sort of ro­ta­tion of good­will.

The choice of dishes for the wed­ding dinner is very im­por­tant, and the caterer goes to ex­tra­or­di­nary lengths to pair in­gre­di­ents with aus­pi­cious rep­re­sen­ta­tions of hap­pi­ness, fer­til­ity, for­tune and longevity of the re­la­tion­ship.

There are vari­a­tions, of course, depend­ing on re­gional dif­fer­ences and bud­get.

Let’s take a look at a typ­i­cal Can­tonese wed­ding dinner menu, be­cause there are none more su­per­sti­tious when it comes to fes­tive sen­si­tiv­i­ties.

The dinner al­ways starts with a whole roasted suck­ling pig, a tra­di­tional sym­bol of the bride’s chastity. Th­ese days, restau­rants make it a staged pro­duc­tion, stick­ing twin­kling lights in the eye sock­ets and dim­ming the ball­room lights so the pigs make a dra­matic state­ment as they are pa­raded in.

The next course is a platter of cold cuts, ar­ranged in the shape of a brightly col­ored phoenix or pe­ony. On the platter may be finely shred­ded se­same chicken, jel­ly­fish salad, strips of cold pink ham, chilled white as­para­gus, tiny spring rolls, sliced abalone and cu­cum­ber salad. In times past, a shark-fin omelet was also in­cluded, but many restau­rants in China have stopped serv­ing this. That is also the rea­son tra­di­tional shark-fin soup has been re­placed by seafood chow­der, fish maw and shred­ded chicken broth or even an un­usual but de­li­cious soup us­ing thinly shred­ded mush­rooms and shark-fin melon, which is a white-fleshed hy­brid of the spaghetti squash. Next up will be ei­ther a chicken or duck dish, rep­re­sent­ing the happy cou­ple as man­darin ducks, the sym­bol of ev­er­last­ing love. The most pop­u­lar is a crispy-skinned roast chicken. In north­ern re­gions, this dish is of­ten re­placed with Pek­ing duck. A seafood dish fol­lows, sig­ni­fy­ing that the cou­ple will never lack food from ei­ther land or sea. For the more pros­per­ous, it may mean sea cu­cum­bers, whole abalones or even a braised lob­ster per ta­ble. More eco­nom­i­cal op­tions are prawns, of­ten lov­ingly curled into heart-shaped morsels. A veg­etable dish to clear the palate comes next, but even this will be pretty lux­u­ri­ous, like red ama­ranth leaves topped with deep­fried shred­ded scal­lops or whole braised shi­itake mush­rooms on a bed of ten­der green as­para­gus. A clear soup sig­nals the im­pend­ing end of the meal, usu­ally a chick- en con­somme or a vege­tar­ian ver­sion us­ing mat­su­take mush­rooms or even truf­fles. It is fol­lowed by longevity noo­dles or a color­ful fried rice, be­fore dessert is served.

Dessert is im­por­tant in the wed­ding feast be­cause it rep­re­sents a sweet end­ing. Pop­u­lar choices are a red bean broth with twin gluti­nous rice balls with more sweet fill­ings. Some­times lily bulbs are added be­cause they are ho­mo­phonic for the words “to­gether for­ever”.

A wed­ding feast usu­ally takes sev­eral hours, since be­tween cour­ses the pro­gram in­cludes the en­trance of the bride and groom, a toast on stage and in­di­vid­ual toasts as the cou­ple and their en­tourage go from ta­ble to ta­ble.

Some­times the groom will be sub­jected to pranks by his hypedup bach­e­lor friends. There are also the req­ui­site speeches by par­ents, grooms­men and oth­ers.

By the end of the even­ing, the cou­ple and their fam­i­lies line the exit and shake hands with guests as they leave, end­ing a happy but no doubt ex­haust­ing meal.

PHO­TOS PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Clock­wise from top: Crispy-skinned roast chicken, jel­ly­fish salad, chilled white as­para­gus and gluti­nous rice balls with more sweet fill­ings.

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