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March 23, 2005

Fujian Wedding Feast by Harley Spiller

While riding the $10 bus from Philadelphia to New York Chinatown, a Chinese passenger in the next seat was amazed that I was snacking on a Taiwanese treat of hot chili peppers and peanuts, fried crispy with sesame oil and seeds. I offered him some, and noted that it’s considered a good beer snack. He was surprised at how spicy it was, and suggested that milk might be a better accompaniment.

My neighbor’s name was Peter and he was headed to NYC on Labor Day, 2004 to “bring something” to Ming Dynasty Restaurant at 75 East Broadway, a heavily Fujianese section of Manhattan’s Chinatown. When we disembarked, he asked if I could help carry several light but bulky packages. I put suspicion aside for the chance to enter a Fujian restaurant with a Fujian native, and was thrilled when we were ushered directly into the kitchen. It was my first time in the underbelly of a giant 600 seat dim-sum palace. It was an off hour, and the staff was lazing about, catching cat naps on chopping blocks and the like. For a Chinese food freak like me, this was a taste of heaven.

The entire restaurant staff moved in for a close look as the cardboard boxes were opened to reveal 40 pounds of live shrimp that had just flown on Southwest Airlines from Florida, and bussed the rest of the way. Amazingly, there was no ice or dry ice, but the shrimp seemed perfectly comfortable in their spacious boxes bedded with loose straw. Apparently Ming’s restaurant was unable to procure live shrimp, so this gentleman had provided his own, for indeed he was to be married there the very next night. My reward for helping out was an invitation to the wedding banquet.

When I arrived the following evening at 7 pm, half of the dining room had been transformed into a wedding palace, with red cloth and sparkling decorations covering every available space. The other half of the restaurant soon filled with working-class Fujianese, attending what seemed to be an inexpensive banquet designed to build community for recent immigrants.

23 tables had been set for Peter’s 230 guests, and at each plate sat a bottle of Stock 84 Italian VSOP brandy. I was seated next to a Fujianese business man from Raleigh who informed us that these bottles were for the guests to take home. He suggested we drink as much beer as possible during the dinner.

Guests started snacking immediately upon arrival, as the tables were also set with sweet black pumpkin seeds, yellow date cookies, White Rabbit and coconut candies. Also on the tables were a variety of dips, important accompaniments at a Fujianese seafood banquet. There was red vinegar, white vinegar with red pepper, soy sauce, a soy/Worcestershire combination, and dried shrimp paste. A host soon appeared on stage, in a bright red-sequined sport coat and matching bow tie. He partnered with a long-haired lady in a gold lame dress to emcee the evening with non-stop Fujianese banter. There were only a handful of non-Chinese in attendance so this was as close to true Fujianese style as could be accomplished – nothing had been toned down for foreign guests. The only thing the emcee said in English all night was a sarcastic remark about understanding him. Ear-splitting Chinese pop music filled the hall non-stop, and there were even dancing girls with veiled and pierced midriffs.

First up was a mixed hot and cold appetizer platter with sweet-and-sour pork nuggets; deep fried fish bits; pickled cabbage; jellyfish that had been cut into uneven shards c. 1 inch by ½ inches; and steamed hairy crabs. Next up were the fresh shrimp I’d helped carry and yes they were worth the effort. Every single shrimp was sweet, plump and redolent of the sea. My favorite dish of the night came next, a triple-treasure stir fry of abalone and conch slices with sea cucumber intestine, sugar snap peas (a trendy ingredient in upscale Chinese restaurants), Chinese celery, and a pickled light-green stem that may have been seaweed. I asked a maitre’d about the mystery ingredient but I was passed around like a hot potato from staffer to staffer, none of whom I could make understand that I had a query, not a complaint. This triple-seafood, triple vegetable dish, cooked with more than a splash of Shao Xiang wine, was a real triple hitter! Most of the other seafoods at this banquet were also cooked with a healthy dose of Shao Xiang cooking wine, which is famously made in Zhejiang, Fujian’s neighboring province to the north. Not a single black bean or hot pepper was used to cook the food.

The married couple changed outfits at least four times during the three-hour banquet, and they were on stage for long periods of time, being ministered to by elders. At one point, after several minutes of excited crowding about, the elders stepped back and revealed the newlyweds, dripping with ostentatious 24-karat gold jewelry. The groom looked a bit like Mr. T and the bride’s broad gold plaques covered her entire upper body.

As earthy as seafood can get, the next dish contained fat choi (black sea moss), dried scallops, dried oysters and fresh spinach that was totally subsumed by the muskiness of this good-luck dish. Following was golden, dense and huskily flavored whole abalone in the shell, with a sap-like golden aspic, surrounding black mushrooms and baby gai lan. Wine-crusted ginger-scallion lobster was as sweet and oceanic as the shrimp, but quail, provided as a respite from all the seafood, were over-roasted. Pairs of whole small sea bass with ginger-scallion and delectably-spongy mushroom e-fu noodles rounded out the main courses. Hot desserts of sticky rice in coconut milk and red bean soup were served, but most were too stuffed to slurp any sweets.

All of a sudden, at the stroke of 10 pm, the wedding was over and the bride and groom were standing in a reception line to say good night to their guests. Waiters tossed take-out pails on the tables and people hastily bagged leftovers and headed downstairs to New York’s own Market Street, where vans were waiting for the ride back to Philly. I guess there is no giant Fujianese banquet hall like Ming’s in Philadelphia, so it was worth the road trip to celebrate this important life cycle event in true Fujianese style. I hope very much to hear again from Peter and his gracious family, as there was no time to tell the newlyweds that their Fujianese feast would be featured in Flavor and Fortune.

Harley Spiller

Posted by BKG at March 23, 2005 2:18 PM

Comments

Sounds a LOT like an nigerian wedding... but I think we would have outdone the 3 hour banquet.. I'm not sure africans ever know when to stop partying lol.. however this was a VERY NICE post and very informative.. will look for more to comment on soon.

Posted by: cg101 [TypeKey Profile Page] at November 19, 2007 3:28 PM

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