When a man loves a woman, in Singapore, it often ends something like this:
The man and his entourage pounding on his loved one’s door, waving red packets of money as bribes, demanding to “buy the bride.” Once they’re inside, a number of the dishes ranging from the downright vile to the sickeningly sweet are set out.
Their task, of course, is to consume what’s set before them with as much gusto as they can muster. Only then have they earned the right to claim the bride for the wedding to proceed.
While it sounds like a prank, the practice actually is a legitimate part of Singaporean Chinese wedding traditions — by eating items that are “suan, ku, la, tian” (sour, bitter, spicy and sweet), the groom is symbolically acknowledging that he expects to go through these phases with his bride in the years ahead. (It’s something of a literal take on the “for better or worse” contract of Western marriages.)
I could say that the women involved in these proceedings often feel sorry for the poor sods–but I’d be lying. The only thing I feel sorry about when I think of my husband and his Singapore groomsman having to down a large spoonful of wasabi (spicy) and immediately chasing it with a pint of Guinness (bitter) was the fact that as the bride, I was locked in a bedroom and unable to watch how green they got.
As a result, whenever I’m a bridesmaid helping out with the “suan, ku, la, tian” bit of the buying of the bride, I relish the opportunity to really stick it to the boys.
When a dear cousin got married recently, we pulled out all the stops.
For starters, we created a “suan” concoction of freshly squeezed lemon juice and dropped in preserved plums that are generally so sour they induce wincing all on their own.
For “ku,” we sliced up a big bitter gourd, whose name is pretty much self-explanatory. It’s widely regarded as the most bitter of vegetables.
Next, we prepared a real “la” treat for the boys: white bread generously buttered with wasabi on one half and super-spicy sambal belacan (a Singaporean shrimp-chili sauce) on the other and then folded over to form a sandwich.
(Because we did feel slightly bad for the boys as we were preparing this, we decided to slice them up into little finger sandwiches for easier consumption/sharing.)
Now, you might think that the “sweet” part would be a welcome respite. Not so in Chinese weddings, where bridesmaids never let up — unless the groom wants to fork over more money in bribes, of course.
Although, all things considered, gobs of pancake syrup and honey stirred into soda probably wasn’t too hard to down after wasabi sandwiches and bitter gourd.
We were having so much fun planning the menu, we didn’t want it to end. So, we added a finale.
My sister had visited a traditional Chinese medicine shop in Hong Kong — the kind that reeks so much of earth and fungus that you carry that smell in your hair a long time after setting foot in one of them.
Once she explained to the owner what exactly it was she was doing, he immediately pulled out several jars and began plucking out items with tweezers — a few starfish, dried seahorses …
… and a package of salted bugs to finish.
What to call this concoction was simple once we boiled them altogether in water for an hour, as per the medicine man’s instructions. When the soup was done and the pot was uncovered, the name was obvious: Smelly.
And the look on the groom’s face when we unveiled the bowl was truly priceless.
We coaxed them into drinking the broth by telling them it was supposed to help with virility. (Which may not have been too far from the truth. These items are actually used in soups to cure sore throats — or virility — the medicine man had said. At least this was what my sister gleaned from her limited grasp of Cantonese.)
The thing about this exercise is, all these steps seem to make the reward at the end all the more prized.
That day, there had been much laughter and merriment. (And only one close encounter with the wasabi coming right back up.)
And having faced the battalion of bridesmaids and survived the seahorse soup, I’d like to think my new cousin-in-law burst through the door that day to claim his bride feeling triumphant, exhilarated — and thinking that after the sour plums, chili sandwiches and salted insect soups, there probably was little out there that they couldn’t face together.