The fading, charming legacy of Taiwan's wedding-banquet culture
By Alina Huang, author of 'The Chefs of Taiwanese Traditional Wedding Receptions'
Translated by Angel Pu
Photography by Lin Wei-min
Today in Taiwan, a steadily-shrinking number of people bother referring to the lunar calendar to choose the most auspicious date for their wedding, as local wedding customs have become rather westernized. However, there are still some folks who prefer the traditional approach to wedding receptions, meaning that these banquets are either held in local community activity centers or on the side of the road near their houses. You may have seen such spectacles before--a canvas red, white and blue tent containing dozens of round tables covered with red tablecloths, with colorful balloons for decorations and a giant-sized framed picture of the newlyweds by the entrance for the guests who don't really know them well.
Taiwan's modern wedding banquet is not as long as before, lasting about three hours. The guests arrive, give red envelopes of money to receptionists (usually the new couple's relatives), sit around a round table with some people they might not know, and have a meal while watching performances on the stage. Despite the excitement, guests really don't have many opportunities to interact with the bride and groom. However, this whole scenario looks and feels very different by comparison to the weddings of earlier days, which were friendlier and offered more interaction.
If people were getting married in Taiwan's earlier days (40-50 years ago), they would hang an auspicious embroidered banner on the lintel of the front door. The banquet holders would have workers cut some bamboo to erect a tent as the dining area in the courtyard of a traditional "san he yuan" three-section compound house. They would also set up a smaller tent in a corner of the courtyard, and build a couple of temporary cooking stoves for the chef they had hired. And don't think that the tent was built to keep the chef from getting sun or rain exposure; rather, its main purpose was keep falling leaves and bird droppings from the food.
Back then, the newlyweds' family members had to handle all arrangements for the wedding banquet. The chef would settle on the pay when he was hired, ask how many pigs, chickens, ducks and even eggs the family had for him to cook with, and tell the family to prepare every necessary ingredient. By the time the wedding began, the chef would only bring a big cooking shovel, a ladle and a meat cutter, and do nothing but prepare food for the guests.
Instead of the round tables that are common these days, people used a "ba xian" traditional Chinese square dining table for wedding banquets. Because the chef did not provide tables and chairs, each family owned one or two "ba xian" tables for special occasions. The family hosting the wedding would send a couple of young family members to borrow ba xian tables and wooden benches from the neighbors and, sometimes, if the neighbors didn't have enough tables and benches, they had to go to a nearby village until they had enough. Because these tables were borrowed by everyone in the same or nearby village, every family would specially mark table legs so they could be properly returned.
A square ba xian table is made for eight people, with two people on each side, and table closest to the front door is the main table. Before the wedding reception began, firecrackers would be set off, tipping off the chef that it was time to serve the food. The total number of dishes needed to be even, amounting to about 12-18 dishes per table, and after being served they would be placed in a circle.
Besides preparing all sorts of ingredients, the family also needed to prepare the proper amount of firewood for the chef's convenience, so they would chop some mango and longan trees down and put the firewood next to the temporary stoves for the chef.
When people held wedding receptions, the nearby neighbors who were closer to the family would volunteer to help them handling the wedding details. The host would gather volunteers and designate various tasks for them. For example, men would chop some bamboo for the tent or borrow ba xian tables and benches, while women borrowed cooking utensils such as woks and buckets, remembering which belonged to whom in order to return them to the right families.
Taiwanese traditional custom:
Returning 'Tsai Wei' (leftovers)
Since most of the wedding-banquet cooking utensils were borrowed from different families, there was a special custom known as "returning tsai wei" (leftovers) in Taiwan's earlier days. After the guests finished eating, the chef would pour all leftovers into a big pot, toss in some white radish slices and Chinese pickled cabbage, and cook it into a "tsai wei" soup. This broth was a bit oily, but refreshing, with a bit of braised-fish flavor. Even today, this unique taste is one of the most unforgettable memories for many middle-aged Taiwanese people.
The cooked tsai wei soup would be distributed via buckets, which female family members of the wedding host would use shoulder poles to carry as the men brought the borrowed ba xian tables back to the neighbors. While returning the tables and other borrowed cooking utensils, the women would scoop out some tsai wei soup from the buckets and give it to the neighbors to show their appreciation. Meanwhile, the other family members of the host would assemble groups of three people and send out the leftover soup to the guests. Each member of these teams had a specific duty--one would use a shoulder pole to carry two pots filled with tsai wei soup, one would distribute it to the families who had volunteered to help that day, and another would be responsible for saying something nice and thanking them for their help.