There were 2 reasons for my recent visit to China (in March), one was to visit Yuye’s sick grandpa in Beijing and the other was to attend my cousin’s wedding in Shanghai. My cousin and I are very close. When my parents came to Australia back in the 1980s, I was barely able to remember their faces. My aunt (who’s my cousin’s mother) took me in for a few years, fed me, educated me and cared for me, under the same roof as my cousin. She treated me like her own child and never favoured anyone which I was very grateful for.
It was a bit sad when I went to Australia, because being adolescents, the next time we met a few years later, we were like strangers, shy and didn’t know what to say to each other. I’m so glad we broke the silence and became like brother and sister again. I prayed for his happiness more than anyone else as he’s a very honest and down to earth sort of guy so he deserved to be with a good girl. I’m glad he found a good wife, they’re like a match made in heaven. The warmth I feel when I see them together is indescribable.
My cousin’s wife is from a town on the outskirts of Shanghai called Chong Ming (崇明) which is an island consisting mostly of farmland. People from the countryside tend to have strong customs, especially when it comes to weddings. They had 2 weddings in total, the first one was at her home town which lasted for almost 3 days and the second was in Shanghai. Can you imagine 3 days of nonstop eating and drinking? They are very heavy alcohol drinkers there. I felt so sorry for my cousin because it’s a custom to get the groom drunk and I can say he didn’t last very long.
I had never been to a country wedding before. It was everything I had imagined. A lot of homemade, hearty food, lots of alcohol, LOTS of people and of course, plenty of nature. We were always greeted with loud firecrackers and there were even colourful flags at the entrance to signal to everyone in town the good news.
We all stayed at the wife’s parents’ house which was newly refurbished and decorated for the occasion and this is where all the meals were held too.
I can tell you…it was freezing. Even though it was mid March already, with no insulation, the place became very cold, very quickly. There are no buildings to shelter the house from the wind, in fact, they even ate meals with the front doors fully open. The only reason they would have done it was to ventilate the rooms from the heavy cigarette smoke during the meals. You should have seen the thick fog like layer of smoke that hovered above my head.
It’s so interesting to hear about how country weddings are prepared. Everyone knows each other in the town so whenever anyone has a wedding, they all go to help out. Each family would own the same set of long wooden chairs and big wooden table so they are all gather at the house holding the wedding while over a hundred guests are invited for each meal. As the wedding lasted for 3 days, a bit of quick maths will reveal just how many people they had to cater for – this is for both lunch and dinner.
There was a temporary kitchen in the garage and for those few days, the garage was full of food and ingredients.
All the cold dishes were pre-prepared at the start of each day which was smart. The photo below only showed 1 meal’s worth of food and only consisted of HALF of the cold dishes! Imagine that…
They actually hired a professional chef from the area to do all the cooking, without him, the meals would not have gone so smoothly. I didn’t want to see how they prepared the dishes though as hygiene wasn’t an issue to him it seemed. I saw him pick up food that had dropped on the ground and just thrown right back into the oil. I also didn’t want to know how much MSG went into those dishes I ate those few days. The biggest bowl on the condiments table had MSG in it. Go figure.
The real kitchen in the house was quite fascinating. I didn’t know they still used such methods to cook. As there was no gas, the stove was powered solely on fire. Hay is put in the hole at the back of the stove which gets lit and someone has to constantly poke at it and fan air so it doesn’t go out. I’m assuming it’s difficult to control the size of the flames so cooking times are difficult to control as well.
As expected they had their own livestock. My cousin’s wife informed me that they used to keep geese which have all been eaten now and there used to be over 20 chickens while there are only about 7-8 left. All sacrifices for the wedding I suppose.
A huge goat leg was hanging in the chicken pen which later became our dinner and was apparently from a neighbour’s goat sacrifice. They don’t have any lambs there for some reason, just goats.
In the courtyard was a patch of vegetables which I couldn’t identify. Every household would have their own veggie patch in Chong Ming which of course is no surprise as there’s an abundance of land.
My cousin’s wife’s family owns a huge piece of land behind their house which used to harvest cotton, so all of their blankets were made using home grown cotton which were the fluffiest most comfortable blankets I’ve ever slept in. Now they’ve rented the land to the government to grow crops.
The nearest town centre on foot is so small it literally only had 1 convenience store and a closed down barber shop. As we strolled along the streets admiring the freshness of the air and crops by the side of the road, we realised just how deserted this place was. Many people have sent their children to bigger towns nearby if not straight into Shanghai city like my cousin’s wife, so these small villages are becoming less and less populated. The only people remaining are old farmers who have no where else to go.
There were all sorts of vegetables and fruits growing around the streets. People are very good at utilising land, even those that do not belong to them. Crops were grown on government land all the way down the riverbank and side of the streets. I guess if no one cares, it doesn’t hurt right?
We saw daikons that were near ready to be plucked and already plucked sweet potatoes that were seemingly abandoned. Why would you abandon these beautiful looking sweet potatoes? I wanted to pick them up but my aunt stopped me. I don’t like wasting food.
There were dead cotton plants everywhere as well as the harvest season must already be over. They were very beautiful, even though the fluffy white cotton is no longer present.
All the fruit we consumed during those few days were homegrown harvests from local farms. I loved the colours and the sweetness of the fruits and was comforted by the fact that these were actually fresh and most likely not full of weird things that Chinese people sometimes put in their food.
It’s also a wonder how all country women seem to know how to make delicious traditional foods such as tang yuan (汤圆), which are gluttonous rice balls and wontons.
The wontons were so delicious, I couldn’t eat enough of them even though they were present at all 4 meals we had.
Here’s a few of the dishes we had during one meal – I didn’t take photos of all the dishes as they were piled up very quickly.
Every single meal was a big one and I always walked away totally bloated. Many of the dishes were the same though across meals to minimise the amount of cooking involved. Like I said, the dishes really piled up…in fact, no dishes were taken away during the meal, until the very end.
With no hot water in the courtyard, helpers had to wash all the dishes in the dark in freezing water. I could see frostbites on the women’s hands the next day and I just felt so bad. I wish I could have bought them a dishwasher.
After such big dinners you’d think we would skip breakfast, but we didn’t. Instead, were had these:
I’m not sure how they expected us to eat 2 whole boiled eggs and a bowl of fermented rice soup. In fact, my aunts couldn’t finish it so I ended up eating 3.5 eggs for one breakfast! Have you tried Chinese fermented rice before? It’s a little alcoholic and people love to eat this with some glutinous rice balls. Dad actually makes it at home so I might put up a recipe some time!
I had so much fun at the wedding I was sad to leave. Chong Ming holds as special place in my heart and my family’s, because my parents actually met each other on a farm there during the cultural revolution. They were sent there to work when they were 15-16 and stayed there for quite a few years before returning to Shanghai. The farm is apparently abandoned now which is a shame but next time I’ll visit the farm with my parents while listening to their interesting stories.
Chong Ming can be reached via car or boat from Shanghai and takes roughly 2 hours transport time. Chong Ming is a beautiful city with good local produce and a lot of nature. If you wish to go, there are local hotels or farmhouse homestay available where you can stay with a local host and they will cook for you as well. This type of accommodation is called Nong Jia Le (农家乐) in China and is a popular way to enjoy true local cuisine and mingle with the country folks.
Question time: Have you ever been to a wedding that is different to others? Did you enjoy it?