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My daughter and her husband at their wedding, which was a beautiful blend of both their cultures. Kait Pena

We served Chinese food at our daughter’s Jewish wedding. It was a match made in heaven

Food is why we come to the table. Love is why we stay.

It all started in March 2020. As my husband and I were packing up the car to escape New York City, Zoe, our 26-year-old daughter, asked if Yifan, a 29-year-old guy she had just started dating, could join us. An hour later, the two of them were smooshed in the backseat of our car, along with all the toilet paper and canned goods we had to our name, as we headed out of town.

In the two-hour car ride, I learned that Zoe and Yifan had worked together but didn’t have an actual conversation until they found one another on Hinge, the dating app. Zoe was attracted to Yifan’s myriad interests, from rock climbing to candle making, and Yifan was charmed by Zoe’s answer to the app’s prompt: Describe your worst and weirdest date ever. I also learned Yifan was born and raised near Shanghai and had come to the U.S. to attend the University of Iowa.

Soon after we became a pod of four, it was time to celebrate Passover, the holiday celebrating the Jews’ exodus from Egypt. Despite supply chain issues and empty grocery shelves, we would still sit down to our holiday seder, the traditional Passover meal.

Zoe & Yifan drinking beers with family
We got to know our daughter's new love interest when the pandemic began and we quickly became a pod of four.Courtesy Helene Rosenthal

I wondered what Yifan would think of our food. It was not unlike wondering what he thought of us and even more what he was thinking about our daughter.

We kicked off the holiday meal the way we always did: with admonitions to keep the seder service short so we could get right into bowls of steaming, hot matzo ball soup. No sooner had I put a bowl in front of Yifan than did his eyes light up, like he had suddenly run into an old friend. He said the dill and parsley broth was like the soup tucked into the dumplings he grew up with.  

OK, I thought, tempering my excitement that Yifan really got us — everyone loves matzo ball soup. Let’s see what he thinks of the gefilte fish. This lumpy, white fish is usually described as tasteless. It ranks right up there with cilantro and black licorice as some of the most polarizing food. But he loved it, and excitedly described the yu yuan seafood balls his uncles used to make by hand that were almost identical.

I was starting to see possibilities here.

Yifan didn’t even wait for the brisket to come out of the oven before remarking that it smelled like dong po rou, the pork belly famous in his hometown. While a pork reference doesn’t really work with Jewish food, I understood what Yifan was trying to say: Chinese food is Jewish food. And Jewish food is Chinese food.

Yifan was building bridges. The rest of us were just waiting to cross.

Zoe & Yifan getting married
My son-in-law's father schlepped a 36-foot paper mache dragon from China. Kait Pena

Two years later Zoe and Yifan were engaged. During our first meeting with our event planner, we talked about a multicultural wedding that would include a Chinese banquet. Zoe loved the idea of shared plates as a way of bringing their friends and family together. “But nothing too spicy or saucy,” the bride-to-be said, already worried about using chopsticks while wearing a wedding dress. But could we find a caterer who was up for the challenge of preparing numerous courses in a makeshift kitchen for close to 150 people? And who could do it well enough that even Yifan’s dad and childhood friends would think it was the real thing? I knew this was what my soon-to-be son-in-law was thinking but was too polite to say out loud.

Fortunately our planner introduced us to a caterer whose Korean head chef had spent her early career opening restaurants in China. I could hear my bubbe in the background screaming "beshert" — this is meant to be.

scallion pancakes shown at Chinese-Jewish wedding.
Scallion pancakes at the wedding. Kait Pena

As the Chinese New Year struck on Feb. 10, 2024, Zoe and Yifan stood under a Jewish chuppah of Chinese talismans and lanterns, wrapped in a Jewish prayer shawl (tallit), and were married. After saying “I do” to a raucous chorus of “mazel tovs,” it was time to eat. Assorted appetizers were passed around, including dumplings (or kreplach, depending on which side of the family you were on), as well as potstickers, scallion pancakes and sesame beef.

For dinner we sat at long tables draped in red and gold linen where a selection of dishes were served family-style: miso-glazed cod, Sichuan vegetables, wok-fried beef cubes and braised sweet chili chicken. In the middle of every table was plenty of challah for dipping and mopping up plates as well as a tamari and red chili oil for an extra kick. We ate with chopsticks (something I am still working on) and we ate with abandon (something I have always excelled at). By my Jewish standards of there being too much food and no one leaving the table wanting for more, it was all perfect.

crispy rice cakes shown at Chinese-Jewish wedding.
Crispy rice cakes were on the menu, too.Kait Pena

After dinner we danced the hora alongside the 36-foot paper mache dragon Yifan’s dad schlepped from China. It took hours of drilling and several trips to Home Depot to put this spectacle of color and sparkle together. But in the end, an overzealous and spirited group of family and friends were able to gather underneath its canopy and burst onto the dance floor for an unending, wild hora.

When Yifan embraced the foods of our culture at that very first seder, so openly and readily, it was the purest expression of love he could have shown towards my daughter. It spoke volumes, too, about the kind of person he was: an eater, an adventurer, someone who understood the importance of gathering family around the table.

He had me at gefilte fish.