Weddings are grand occasions worldwide, and it comes as no surprise that every country celebrates the union between two people with their own unique traditions. Some cultures have intimate wedding receptions, while others have elaborate week-long fetes. Some traditions have been passed down for centuries, while some are relatively modern. Regardless of the tradition, the celebration of love is a joyful occasion and is often accompanied by music, dancing, conversation, and various important rituals tied to the big day.
And the one element that is seemingly constant at wedding celebrations everywhere is food.
In many countries, the dishes traditionally served at a wedding reception have a deeper symbolic meaning behind them. Everything from the texture, shape, color, to the ingredients and presentation of a dish can reflect the couple’s hopes for their future together or the well-wishes from loved ones.
In some cultures, food items are tied to specific wedding rituals. In others, it is not uncommon to see the same sweet or savory dishes present at other religious or social gatherings as well. Guests at wedding receptions might get to indulge in elaborate dessert creations, and some are also lucky enough to be sent home with sweet treats in the form of party favors.
Of course, many cultures have weddings with multiple courses or even multiple days of feasts, and there are easily countless different dishes served at a single wedding.
Here is just a small slice of all the fascinating wedding food traditions from around the world.
In Brazil, bem casado is a name that translates to “well married” in Portuguese. Though this confection might be called a cookie, it is actually two small pieces of sponge cake held together like a sandwich by a filling of dulce de leche, egg curd, or jam, signifying the sweetness of the couple held together by marriage. These treats are rolled in sugar and adorably wrapped in crepe paper and ribbon, to be given to the guests as a party favor at the end of the reception. Before the cakes are eaten, each guest is thought to make a wish for the couple and their life together.
2. Great Britain
The traditional fruitcake traces its roots back to the Middle Ages when the fruitcake was a symbol of wealth and prosperity due to its rich ingredients such as spices, alcohol, and dried fruit. The cake is covered in a layer of marzipan and then coated with royal icing for a smooth finish. Fruitcake has been a staple at British weddings for centuries because of its preservation due to its ingredients. These days, the top tier of a British Royal Wedding cake is made of fruitcake, which is kept aside and served as the christening cake to celebrate the birth of the couple’s first child.
Confetti bomboniera is given as a party favor at Italian weddings. Bomboniera refers to a gift box of sweets traditionally given to guests as a thank you, and confetti refers to Jordan almonds. The almonds are coated in sugar and come in many different colors, white being the popular choice for weddings. They symbolize the bittersweet nature of marriage, with the almond representing the bitter and the candy representing the sweet. The treats are usually served to guests in little bags or boxes filled with an odd number of almonds. This is because marriage is a union between two people, so the amount must never be divisible by two. Interestingly, Greek and Middle Eastern weddings often incorporate a similar tradition.
The traditional French wedding cake is a croquembouche. It is said to resemble the Eiffel Tower (it is not actually a cake) stacked high with cream-filled buns (or profiteroles), bound together by threads of caramel, and elegantly arranged into a tower. The invention of the croquembouche is disputed but is usually credited to Antonin Careme in the late 18th century. Since it is such a monumental work of art, it takes a lot of time to make, and remarkable patience is needed to stack the pastries together to ensure a clean and sturdy structure.
In Morocco, mechoui refers to any meat, usually lamb, that is slowly roasted over a fire. It is used to serve large gatherings at weddings. There are several different preparations of this dish that require only part of the animal, but since weddings are a grand occasion, a whole lamb is often cooked over a long time to make sure the meat is tender. Moroccan weddings usually last for a few days, which means that several other types of meals are served as well, such as an array of pastries, a traditional tagine (a kind of stew), or steffa (sweet noodles served with cinnamon and almonds). Typical ceremonies start late in the evening and end only in the early morning, so it is not uncommon for breakfast to be served at the end of the party.
Traditional Chinese weddings feature an elaborate 10-course wedding feast. The courses on the menu are associated with symbols such as happiness, longevity, fertility, selflessness, abundance, peace, and a sweet life together for the bride and groom. It is common to find many red foods such as lobster and Peking duck at the banquet, as red is considered a lucky color in Chinese culture. Chicken or game birds are served since they represent peace, and fish is served to represent abundance.
For dessert, newly married couples share a bowl of tang yuan (sweet rice ball soup) on their wedding day or the night before to ensure a sweet start to the marriage. The roundness of the rice balls is said to represent the wholeness and perfection of a marriage. For good luck, it is key to swallow them whole instead of chewing, which would ruin the smooth shape.
Though there is no specific menu at a Hindu wedding, no celebration is complete without an assortment of traditional sweets, known as mithai. According to Hindus, all the ingredients in mithai (milk, sugar, ghee) are pure enough to be given as offerings to gods and served to devotees at temples.
Barfi is a mithai that is popular in South Asia and comes in several varieties. The word barfi comes from the Persian word barf, meaning ice or snow, because the most simple style of the sweet has the color and texture of fresh snow. The main ingredient in the sweet is usually condensed milk, but other versions such as kaju katli (cashew barfi) are also popular. Variations may include added flavors such as coconut, rose, chocolate, or pistachio. The dish is also prepared in large quantities for festivals like Diwali and Holi. When the dessert is served at weddings, an edible silver leaf called vark is usually placed at the edges.
In traditional Indian weddings, the bride and grooms will feed each other mithai and be fed a little bit of the sweet treat by family and guests.
Ghapama is a traditional autumn dish made of a pumpkin stuffed with rice, nuts, raisins, and apricots from Armenia. It symbolizes a sweet life and is commonly cooked in a tonir oven and served on important occasions. The word Ghapama means closing in Turkish, which refers to the fact that the pumpkin is covered or closed to cook the contents inside. The dish’s presentation is theatrical since the whole pumpkin is cut down and presented on a platter like the petals of a flower. This dish is a big part of Armenian culture, so much so that there is even a song associated with it called Hey Jan Ghamapa with lyrics detailing the preparation and celebration associated with the dish.
Foy Thong is a common Thai dessert consisting of sweet noodles made of egg yolk and sugar water that loosely translates to golden silk threads. With a Foy Thong cake, the cake itself can come in various flavors, with the Foy Thong noodles as a topping.
The dish is time-consuming to make (but worth it), as the process requires a wok and a special cone with small openings to make the threads as long as possible. Symbolically, the labor required in the preparation represents the work that goes into maintaining a good marriage. The gold color is believed to bring good luck, and the length of the threads themselves reflects the everlasting bond of the couple; therefore, the newlyweds must be served the longest noodles. Foy Thong is just one type of dessert served at Thai weddings, and there are many more with special significance.
The use of the kola nut in wedding ceremonies in the Igbo tribe of Nigeria is deeply symbolic. Kola nuts are used for medicinal purposes, identified with local deities, are taken as an aphrodisiac, and have been a part of African traditions for centuries. They are high in caffeine, are eaten to reduce hunger and give people energy. Not only are the nuts important to religious and social customs, but they also signify blessings at weddings, child naming ceremonies, and funerals. During wedding ceremonies, couples share a kola nut between themselves and their parents, symbolizing families brought together and sharing the responsibility of caring for each other.
One of the dishes commonly served at Japanese weddings is kazunoko, a herring roe that has been marinated in soy sauce. The food item symbolizes fertility and family prosperity, which is why it is served especially to the couple. The herring roe is usually yellow or pink in color, prepared beforehand by laying it out to dry in the sun and pickled in salt to preserve the fish. It is prepared with rice, sometimes in sushi, and is a popular option at New Year’s celebrations.
Another famous wedding tradition in Japan is san-san-kudo (three, three, nine times), during which the bride and groom each take three sips of sake from three different cups stacked on top of one another, totaling nine sips. The number three in this tradition has different meanings and signifies the three couples: the bride, groom, and both sets of parents, or the three human flaws of hatred, passion, and ignorance.
Wedding cakes play a symbolic role in traditional Bermuda weddings. Both the bride and groom each get their own cake, each decorated differently to reflect what they hope to bring to the union. The bride’s cake comprises three tiers of fruitcake, covered in silver leaf, symbolizing elegance and a fruitful marriage. The groom will typically get a single-tiered pound cake covered in gold leaf, meant to represent prosperity. It is also customary to place symbols reflecting the groom’s profession or activities on his cake, as well as additional decorations such as chocolate, rose petals, nuts, and fruit. Most importantly, the cakes are topped with cedar saplings, which the couple will later plant in their garden to signify their growing love.
Roti buaya (crocodile bread) is a traditional wedding food amongst the Betawi people of Indonesia. These sweetened loaves of bread are baked in the form of crocodiles because the animal is said to be a symbol of faithfulness and long-lasting life. The bread is prepared by the bride’s family, and during the wedding ceremony, guests scrutinize the appearance of the dish because how it turned out is believed to reflect the groom’s character as a husband. Before the introduction of bread and pastry-making by Europeans, the dish was often made with yam or cassava, with the modern version created in the colonial era and inspired by Dutch cuisine.
Banh Xu Xe is a symbolic Vietnamese dessert that translates to husband and wife cake. The small cakes are commonly served to guests at the reception, but traditionally it is on the day of the engagement that the groom’s family visits the bride’s home to offer presents and treats, including banh xu xe. The outside of the cakes are made of tapioca, while the filling is made from rice and mung beans and finally placed in tiny square boxes made from coconut leaves. The upper part of the box fits perfectly with the lower part and is believed to symbolize a perfect match, while the stickiness of the desert reflects how the couple will stick together.
The German dish Hochzeitssuppe translates to wedding soup. It is a traditional dish that requires a lot of preparation and is usually reserved for special occasions like wedding receptions (hence the name). The soup is usually the first course at a wedding reception and is first served to the bride and groom before their guests. Though there are regional variations on the dish, it consists of simple ingredients such as chicken broth, chicken, meatballs, noodles, egg, asparagus, and herbs—some versions of the dish substitute chicken for beef or consist of raisins. Although the ingredients are simple, the dish is always cooked with care to ensure high quality.
16. South Korea
Yaksik is a sweet dish made of sticky rice, honey, nuts, and jujubes (Korean dates) eaten during special occasions in South Korea. The word comes from the word “yak” meaning honey, since it is an essential ingredient in the cake, but it also translates to medicine food as honey was considered medicinal in ancient times. Yaksik is often served at festival celebrations, especially Jeongwol Daeboreum, a celebration of the first full moon of the new year, and served during wedding celebrations.
Jujubes have significance in other wedding traditions as well. During Pyebaek, a family-only wedding custom traditionally held a few days after the wedding, the bride offers jujubes and chestnuts to her in-laws. The parents share their wisdom with the couple during this ceremony, and at the end, the groom’s family will toss the jujubes and chestnuts back at the couple. The bride is meant to catch as many as she can in her gown, as the quantity she catches represents how many children she will have.
Food traditions play such a huge part in many cultures, so it’s no wonder that the dishes served at weddings worldwide have fascinating significance. With the pandemic, most of us cannot attend large gatherings, but it is comforting to reflect on the wedding traditions that have carried on for centuries as we look forward to eventually celebrating with family and friends once again.
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