Last weekend, I had the chance to attend a Taiwanese wedding for the second time in my life. In neither did I actually know the bride or groom… but that’s OK, because weddings here are about the food.
The first time I attended a Taiwanese wedding, I was actually sent specifically to eat. I have some vegetarian relatives, and wedding banquets, which involve lots of meat, fish, and shellfish, are not a convenient affair for them. So I went in their place. (Note: happy to offer this service to any of my vegetarian friends reading this.)
You know those “about the couple” slideshows or “how we met” photo montages? “WHO CARES,” said Grandma Chan. “Once I went to a wedding where the bride was a flight attendant,” chimed in an aunt, “and they showed photos of her in all the places she’d travelled to… like how much more boring can it get?!”
An uncle agreed saying, “you’d better eat plenty for breakfast, because couples these days like to show videos and play games on stage and don’t bring out the food until much later so you pay attention to them.” The wedding I attended this weekend got off to a late start, so you can imagine the grumbling. “Where is the goddamn food?!” a great-uncle who takes photos with his iPad exclaimed, “It’s already one (pm) for chrissakes!”
So what kind of food and drink was served? How were they received? And what other things made the wedding interesting?
“Return of the Bride to her Family”
This wedding banquet was officially called a 歸寧宴 or “return-of-the-bride banquet.” In other words, this is really a sequel banquet — the couple has held a wedding banquet and this one more to allow the newlywed couple to pay respects to the bride’s side of the family.
In the old days in China, if the bride and grooms’ families lived far away from each other, this event could be the last time the bride ever heard from her family. Not sure if this ever applied in Taiwan (a much smaller place) but you get the idea.
This bride went back to Dongshih (her father’s home) in a parade of cars:
In the past, this was done with a sedan chair / carriage on poles carried by people. Grandma Chan went home on one of these! Apparently, the bride and groom would go to the bride’s home (娘家) on a sedan chair at noon some predetermined day after the marriage. The couple is however expected to rush back to the husband’s home (婆家)at dusk. It would be bad luck if they stayed overnight at the bride’s home.
As a result, “return-of-the-bride” banquets usually happen at noon and is mainly attended by the bride’s family. This differs from the wedding banquet proper, which usually happens at night (晚宴) and is attended by both sides of the family. However these days apparently, many couples combine the two events into one to save time and money.
Another thing I found interesting was that the parents walk down the aisle together before the bride and groom do. There was no “giving away” of the bride by her father (and if my memory serves me correctly not at the last banquet I attended either). Imagine seeing the parents walking down the aisle in a Western wedding!
The Table Setting
Here’s my view of the table. You’ll notice four large cartons of juice/tea, some wine glasses in the front (but not enough for everyone at the table) and a bottle of red wine in the background. I think this presentation aptly captures how not central wine is to the Taiwanese wedding.
Before the ceremony began, a waiter/waitress asked each table if they wanted to have the bottle opened. Our table, mostly old people hesitated to say yes. The waiter/waitress then asked how many glasses to bring or to take away. The glasses just take up space if people don’t drink wine.
Here we see three kinds of drinks at play during a toast:
Each table also had a menu, listing the courses to be served that day:
The first thing brought out was this plate of 炸湯圓 fried mochi balls. My grandma, grandpa and I each had about 3-4 of these. They were the first things on the table, something to fill you up a little as you waited for the real food.
They looked so ordinary that I didn’t bother snapping a photo at the beginning. But they turned out to be one of my favorites. A reminder to never underestimate the most simple foods in Taiwan!
Then after much ado, the real food was finally brought out, starting with a sashimi boat, paraded in to Pirates of the Caribbean music. My grandparents don’t eat sashimi though. My grandmother was never a fan and my grandfather stopped eating it after a surgery. Recently I heard an aunt say that someone she knew got infected with a parasite from sashimi.
Although sushi and sashimi are pretty popular here, raw food seems to still be regarded with suspicion. People here don’t eat raw egg the way Koreans and Japanese people do. Even salad is not totally accepted; I noticed that the supermarket didn’t stock salad veggies regularly until summer. The day before the recent super typhoon, all their veggies were sold out except for their salad! (Ha! Better for me.)
Raw condiments don’t get a break either. An aunt said, “Green onion is hollow, so there might be bug larva in there.” At lunch one day, I heard a friend of another aunt say something about not eating cilantro. Anywho onto the next dish:
Interestingly, crab is also not Grandma Chan’s cup of tea. To be honest, the crab meat was a little overcooked, though the onions which soaked up the crab juices were tasty. As Grandpa Chan put it, 佐料最好吃.
And then some chicken soup, which was truly soul-warming:
Next up was stir-fried scallops:
And then this half-pork, half-beef thing:
While they were prepared differently, they functioned more like two separate options. My grandma and two other elderly women chose to eat pork. They explained that they don’t like the taste of beef. I’ve never thought of beef as an acquired taste, but I guess to them it must be like lamb.
Then in between this and the next dish, the MC (yes there are wedding MCs) asked us to turn on the flashlights on our phones and wave them, glowstick-style. The couple walked in (again) and sang as they walked down the aisle. A little dramatic if you ask me. Anyways, after that intermission came this beauty:
Steamed fish is one of my favorite aspects of Taiwanese/Chinese food. In Japan, typically everyone gets their own little fish, whereas in Taiwan it’s more common to steam up a fish that everyone eats together. In fact I might make some tomorrow… Found this really simple recipe.
Then some more seafood dishes:
The shellfish one in particular was immediately recognized by everyone at the table (except me) for being an exquisite delicacy found in Taitung. It’s called 九孔 “nine holes” after the characteristic row of nine holes in the shell:
This is more what I was expecting from a wedding banquet. In the last one I went to, there were also all sorts of delicacies from the sea, including sea cucumber 海參. Though I tend not to be a fan ><”. I took a small bite of this and gave the rest to my grandpa. But now at least I can recognize it!
To finish off the main courses, there was this 櫻花蝦米糕, which is supposed to be rice cake, but it looked more like fried rice to me:
At this point, we were pretty stuffed, so nobody took a bite. But not to worry! This being Taiwan, you can take home the leftovers.
And don’t forget the soup:
Taking leftovers home isn’t just incidental, but expected. The banquet hall provided little plastic bags specifically for this purpose. They’re folded and put in little envelopes on the table even before the meal starts, so you don’t even have to ask for them! One of my Taiwanese friends who got married last year said she cut costs on everything but food, making sure to have enough so her relatives could pack some home.
Then came some cupcakes and Haagen-daz ice cream. Grandma and Grandpa Chan both found the ice cream too frozen to their liking. It was indeed a little hard.
But I’d like to end with this shot of Great-Uncle giving some feedback on the “nine-holes”:
We all chuckled.