- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 4, 2007

When I got married 13 years ago, I knew nothing about making a wedding memorable for my guests.

In my early 20s and unschooled in the intricacies of wedding planning, I signed on for the standard church service, followed by dinner at a reception hall. The most intriguing aspect of the day came in the form of silver trays filled with Greek sweets — syrupy, nut-filled baklava and sugar-blanketed, ouzo-laced kourambiedes — baked by a childhood friend’s mother, Vasiliki Kolovos.

Had I delved further into matrimonial foods and rites of other countries and injected a clever custom or two, I would have hosted an affair that even the most distant relative or acquaintance would never forget.

A 33-year resident of Itea, Greece, on the Corinthian Gulf, Ted Worth, along with his wife Fofo, has repeatedly witnessed the country’s diverse marriage rituals. Practices vary from family to family, region to region, he notes. While some couples dance until dawn to traditional bouzouki music at the local taverna, others let loose with fireworks displays at tony reception halls.

Along with launching pyrotechnics, celebrants may also shoot off weaponry. The island of Crete is home to wedding celebrations where double-barrel shotguns are fired into the air. “This custom leads guests to remark that ‘sometimes there is a funeral as well as a wedding,’ ” says Mr. Worth, a teacher at the School of the English Language in Itea, Crete.

Food also plays a symbolic role in Greek weddings. Island services end with the bride and groom eating honey and walnuts, emblems of sweetness and fertility. Elsewhere, jubilant guests throw sugar-coated almonds, koufetta, at newly married couples.

The candy represents the bittersweet aspect of wedded life. At almost every Greek reception, guests receive bonbonnieres, packages filled with an odd number of white chocolate-covered almonds. The egg-shaped treats stand for fertility, as well as for the new life that begins with marriage.

A continent away in Afghanistan, both betrothal and matrimony are marked by opulent outdoor banquets. Sitting on pillows placed atop hand-woven carpets, diners indulge in an array of local delicacies.

Kabobs, slow-cooked stews or korma and saffron-scented pilafs serve as the staples, while an abundance of fresh seasonal fruit, rice pudding perfumed with rose water and firni, a cardamom custard, top off the meal. Sweetened black tea and green tea flavored with cardamom and clotted cream act as thirst quenchers at these alcohol-free festivities.

Similarly, in Morocco, guests rest outside on cushions positioned around low, round tables and partake of a classic Berber feast. The vast spread begins with platters of bastila, a flaky pie filled with pigeon, eggs, onions, preserved lemons and almonds and topped with a cinnamon and sugar-dusted pastry crust.

Eaten by hand instead of with silverware, the bastila precedes such foods as whole roasted lamb, couscous and semolina pancakes, or beghrir, topped with whipped cream, cherries, pistachios and honey.

In prerevolutionary China, extravagant repasts featuring at least 32 dishes, including bird’s nest soup, delighted reception attendants. Simpler occasions, today’s fetes occur in restaurants, not reception halls, and rarely involve more than 30 different foods.

For Shanghai native Yu Mao, one of the more memorable aspects of these events involves the marriage toast. Unlike American weddings, where only the honor attendants bestow good wishes, everyone at a Chinese reception may do so and ask those assembled to raise a glass of beer or shao jiu, a clear, distilled liquor, and pay tribute to the newlyweds.

As the evening advances and the toasting continues, the risk of inebriation runs high. To reduce the likelihood of an alcohol-induced spectacle, the best man and best woman stand in for the bride and groom and drink some of the toasts.

After a joyful night of dining and drinking, the couple presents gifts of chocolate or candy wrapped in pink and bearing the sign of double happiness to relatives and friends. They then retire to their home and hunt for peanuts and dried berries that family members have hidden in the couple’s bedroom. These foods symbolize fertility and, prior to China’s 1970s family planning laws, the desire for male and female offspring.

In India, sumptuous weddings stretch out for as long as a week, with matrimony transpiring on the final day. Typically held outdoors on lush grounds surrounded by trees twinkling with lights, the evening ceremony lasts about two hours.

It is preceded by an hour-long processional, during which the groom, led by a cortege of dancing family members and a live band, rides to the wedding hall in a silver, horse-drawn buggy, says Hima Patel, who is from and was married in Vadodara in the western state of Gujarat.

As the vows are exchanged, friends and family — numbering anywhere from 750 to 1,500 — dine at a lavish outdoor buffet. The bride, dressed in a red and white sari and displaying hennaed hands, arms and feet, and the groom, wearing a cream and red suit, also dine at this time.

“They have fasted from the morning of the wedding until the ceremony, during which they feed one another panda, a milk-based sweet,” says Mrs. Patel, an information technology professional.

From pigeon pies and endless toasts to lengthy parades and fireworks displays, these wedding traditions spice up an already exciting event. Should I ever assist in planning a wedding, I will be sure to slip in some sugar-coated almonds, rose water-infused rice puddings and a hidden berry or two.

Afghan rice pudding

1½ cups arborio or other short-grained rice


1 cup milk, at room temperature

3/4 cup sugar

1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons rose water

1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom

2 tablespoons ground almonds

Roughly chopped pistachios and/or rose petals for garnish, optional

Halved blanched almonds and raisins, optional

Place rice and 2½ cups water in pan, cover and cook for 20 minutes, or until tender, following directions on rice package. Remove cover and add milk and sugar, stirring to combine. Simmer, uncovered, for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring periodically.

Add rose water, cardamom and almonds. Stir and remove from heat. Allow to cool before serving. Spoon pudding into small bowls, garnish, if desired, with pistachios and rose petals or almonds and raisins and serve.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Kourambiedes (Greek shortbread cookies)

The recipe that follows is from Vasiliki Kolovos.

½ pound unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for greasing baking sheets

1/4 cup sugar

1 egg yolk

½ teaspoon vanilla

2½ tablespoons ouzo (anise-flavored liqueur)

About 2 cups flour, sifted, divided

½ teaspoon baking powder

Confectioners’ sugar

Grease two baking sheets and set aside.

Using an electric mixer, beat ½ pound butter until light and fluffy. Add sugar and egg yolk and continue beating until well blended. Add vanilla and ouzo and beat until combined.

Mix 1 cup flour with baking powder and add to butter mixture. Add about another 1 cup flour, a little at a time. (Depending on temperature conditions, you may need a little more or less flour to make a dough that is supple but not sticky.)

Place dough on a flat, flour-dusted work surface and roll out ½-inch thick. To make crescent shaped cookies, use either a crescent-shaped cookie cutter or the lip of a water glass. If using a glass, place roughly half of lip onto dough and press downward. Repeat to create the crescent shape. Alternatively, use the glass to make circles or with your hands roll dough into small balls.

Put cookies 1 inch apart on greased baking sheets and bake in preheated 350-degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes, or until tops are light brown. Cool for 5 minutes, then remove from sheets, place on cooling rack and generously sift confectioners’ sugar over.

Makes about 4 dozen cookies.

Berber wedding pancakes

1 1/4-ounce package active dry yeast


1 cup all-purpose flour, sifted

2 cups semolina flour, sifted

3/4 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons sugar

2 eggs, lightly beaten

3½ cups milk, room temperature

Oil for greasing pan or griddle

Whipped cream for garnish

Roughly chopped pistachios or almonds for garnish

Maraschino cherries for garnish

Honey for garnish

In small bowl, combine yeast with 3 tablespoons warm water and let sit for 10 to 15 minutes, or until yeast has dissolved.

In large bowl, sift together all-purpose and semolina flours, salt and sugar. Mix in yeast and form a well in center of mixture.

Combine eggs and milk and pour into well. Mix batter until combined, then stir vigorously for about 5 minutes. Batter will be both frothy and slightly lumpy. Cover bowl and place in warm location for 1 to 2 hours.

Lightly oil and heat a frying pan or griddle. Using a 1/4-cup measuring cup or small ladle, pour pancake batter onto frying pan or griddle. Allow cakes to cook for 3 minutes on one side. (Do not flip pancakes.) When done, tops will have bubbled and cooked through.

Fold pancakes in half with browned side facing outward. Place them on a large plate and prop them against one another to preserve their shapes.

To serve, spoon several spoons of whipped cream into each. Top whipped cream with a sprinkling of chopped pistachios or almonds, followed by a cherry and a drizzle of honey. Serve immediately.

Makes about 30 pancakes.

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