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Changing features of traditional wedding banquets

Banquets usually take up the largest part of a wedding budget.

Banquets usually take up the largest part of a wedding budget.

YOUNG couples in Shanghai are doing away with traditional wedding banquet, leaving out expensive standardized dishes and endless toasts (ganbei, or bottoms up). However, their parents, who pay for the big feast, often thwart their plans.

Last week, Li Qian celebrated her first wedding anniversary at a local five-star hotel, the same place where she had her wedding banquet.

Her memory went back to a year ago. A big function room with 20 round tables was fully decorated by seasonal flowers — rose, peony and calla. She walked through an arch of flowers in her beautiful wedding gown. It was the perfect romantic and fairytale wedding that she had always wanted.

For that dream wedding, she had to shell out much more than other couples.

“I went to the Shanghai wedding fair before booking my banquet and found that tailor-made wedding banquet (excluding the cost of food and venue, but including the setting and photo shoots) generally costs from 200,000 yuan (US$29,430), while the normal banquet held at hotels costs around 80,000 yuan,” said Li.

Banquets take up the largest part of a wedding budget — more than 65 percent on an average, according to Wedding Industry Blue Book released by Meituan.com, a popular online catering service platform.

The book claims that a Shanghai couple generally holds a wedding banquet of the size of 20 round tables, with each table costing around 8,000 yuan on average.

The banquet’s costs in Shanghai are traditionally covered by the cash gifts given by guests. Now that is also becoming too expensive to cover the banquet.

Li still had regrets about her wedding.

“I would have liked a simple and casual wedding, without ganbei and lucky draw, and combining wedding ceremony with banquet. However, it’s nearly impossible in China because most couples don’t want to upset their parents. All the things I don’t want is defined as classical and traditional Chinese wedding,” Li said.

Some of Li’s friends held two wedding ceremonies — one for themselves, and the other to please their parents. Li thinks that is “expensive, time-and-labor-consuming.”

Food, always the priority

Compared to couples that are keen on simple and ceremonial wedding, their parents, who bear most of the expenses, pay more attention to food that must be substantial and expensive.

“Are dishes enough to feed guests? Is there lobster in the menu? These are top two questions that most parents ask me before agreeing on the banquet,” said Iris Hu, a wedding consultant at Fairmont Peace Hotel.

To satisfy her parents, Li went through plenty of wedding menus in Shanghai and finally chose Shangri-La due to her trust in the brand.

Meituan.com noted that big brand names account for 49 percent of online searches.

Lorra Liu got married a month ago. To meet the demands of both sets of parents, Liu and her husband chose Radisson Blue Plaza Xingguo Hotel, known for offering classical Shanghai dishes.

Liu however said the menu had lost the “authenticity and flavor” just to make it look more expensive.

“Only the cold dishes were in Shanghai style. Most of the hot dishes were Cantonese, known for adding various premium seafoods,” said Liu.

So was Li Qian’s banquet menu.

Cantonese and even Western adaptation is popular among most of the five-star hotels in Shanghai. Baked lobster with cheese is one of the most popular wedding dishes in Shanghai.

Besides the flavor, the dish name has also lost its authenticity.

“Traditionally, a name of a dish was considered auspicious or romantic. Over the past few years, hotel, probably influenced by globalized hospitality thinking, prefer highlighting expensive ingredients in the names. But recently we have seen the old names making a comeback,” said Hu.

According to food critic Jiang Liyang, an authentic Shanghai-style wedding banquet included eight cold dishes, eight stir-fried dishes involving a sweet one made of fruit symbolizing dolce vita, four “big” dishes with chicken, duck, fish and pork, two soups and two different dim sums.

Only state-owned heritage hotels and restaurants include some of the old recipes.

John Ma, Chinese master chef at Fairmont Peace Hotel, looks at it differently.

“I don’t think it’s kind of being lost. Looking back at 1980s Shanghai, those high-end banquets served dishes from various parts of China to ensure diversity in flavor. Take Peace Hotel (today’s Fairmont Peace Hotel) as example. The wedding menu basically contained 60 percent Shanghai dishes, 20 percent Cantonese dishes and 10 percent flavors from other regions depending on the couple’s background.”

The wedding banquet market is changing, and therefore challenging.

According to chef Ma, his wedding clients are mainly four groups who have their distinctive expectations: expats in Shanghai from Western countries who prefer guests eating separately; Japanese marrying a local who go for a seven-to-eight course menu; overseas Chinese with a bit of nostalgia and looking for classical Shanghai flavors; local couples wanting efficient dining service with a table full of dishes to show respect to diners.

“That doesn’t mean we are giving up the legacy of Shanghai wedding banquet,” said Ma.

Ma said a classic wedding banquet cannot be without duck in soy sauce, smoked fish, jelly fish tossed in sauce, boiled chicken, jujube stuffed with glutinous rice and sweetened lotus root.

To balance the authentic flavor with expensive ingredients, the chef adapts some classical Cantonese dishes in Shanghai style. For example, he replaces the abalone sauce with shrimp roe sauce to cook sea cucumber.

“All the chefs in my kitchen are Shanghainese, which I think is the most important legacy of Shanghai wedding banquet,” the chef said.

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