Do all dishes have symbolic meaning at a Chinese wedding banquet?
Some courses are a traditional part of the feast; other, more recent introductions can be changed or discarded entirely
Like a lot of things Chinese, the dishes served at a banquet are steeped in tradition. An example common to all celebratory dinners is of poultry and fish being served with heads and tails intact, signifying that all things are wholesome and complete.
Vegetarian dishes are taboo, as a herbivore diet is associated with austerity and falling on hard times. And when it comes to once-in-a-lifetime events such as wedding banquets, superstition and the search for auspiciousness intensify to make sure that the couple starts on the right foot and guests are happy.
In Hong Kong, what’s served at a typical Chinese wedding banquet has been regimented by tradition to a fairly standard procession. A typical 10-course banquet starts with a whole suckling pig, crab claw, a soup, abalone, fish and chicken, and ends with rice, noodles, dessert and petite fours.
But what about variety? What are the meanings of the dishes, and which ones can be switched or ditched altogether?
“The three mainstays are suckling pig, chicken and fish,” says Paul Lau, chef de cuisine at Ritz-Carlton’s Michelin-starred Tin Lung Heen. “Suckling pig is a must at weddings because it symbolises the bride’s chastity,” he says. “There’s an old Chinese saying that goes, ‘A banquet without chicken is just dinner’, so chicken has to be on the menu. All family or celebratory dinners usually include fish as phonetically it sounds like the word ‘surplus’, taken to mean bountiful harvest, profits and bonuses. These well wishes all carry extra meaning for a couple to have a good start to their marriage.”
What about the remaining seven courses, then?
Lau, whose career in Chinese cuisine and banquets spans three decades, says food items such as crab, abalone, and shark fin became popular only in the 1980s. “Hong Kong’s economy was starting to take flight; the prosperity transitioned to extravagance and serving the best to guests at weddings became common practice,” he says.
If that’s the case then many of these courses are easily replaceable, Lau agrees. “I braise lobster to create a soup base and serve it with fish maw as the soup dish and do away with shark fin,” he says. “I’m also able to source some large crab claws where we don’t need to bump up the size by frying it in shrimp paste, making the starting course healthier than the usual deep-fried option.
“Sweet rice dumplings are popular for dessert, as it sounds similar to ‘togetherness’ in Cantonese, or sometimes we use red bean sweet soup because of the colour,” Lau adds. “Rice and noodles are just fillers, because it goes against decorum to have guests leave the banquet hungry.”
However, depending on who you talk to, rice and noodles can also be stars of the meal.
Yat-sang Chan, head chef at Stellar House, famous for his banquets with dishes from Foshan’s Shunde district, says clients often especially request his fried glutinous rice with preserved meats to end the meal.Chan will often get this request throughout the year, even though the dish is normally a winter comfort food.
Yet that’s not the only dish you can switch, Chan says. “Back when I was working at the Shun Tak Fraternal Association, our kitchen didn’t have enough room to roast over 10 suckling pigs at once, so we used baby squab as the dish to represent the bride’s virtue instead.”
Lau also recalls a time when tradition was a little different, before weddings became so extravagant. “Serving one, big fish in a banquet is a recent trend,” he says. “When I first started working in banquet halls we would serve two smaller fish because even numbers were more auspicious.”
Lau has actually reverted back to previous practices for culinary purposes. “The flesh of larger fishes are actually tougher and less silky,” he says.
“Now that it’s vogue to neatly serve one-person portions to avoid the mess of breaking up the whole animal on the table, I would rather use smaller fish to give the guests a better culinary experience.”
While superstition and the belief in auspicious tidings have led many of us to believe there’s not much variation in the menus at Chinese banquets, Lau and Chan, both seasoned chefs, point out that quite a few dishes can be changed if one is mindful of what’s considered lucky – and what’s not. Ultimately, it’s about friends and family celebrating the marriage of a new couple – and having a great time doing it.