Two dear friends were married last weekend, in a three-day explosion of fun, laughter, tribal drum squads, and really, really good African food. One half of this couple is from Texas. The other is from Burundi, a small East Africa nation between Rwanda and Tanzania. Her family brought rich cultural traditions to this wedding, including, to my surprise, a dowry ceremony. Have you ever been to an African wedding?
Not a Chicken McNugget, all appearances to the contrary! This is a fried savory African-style doughnut, called mandazi.
I've been to Africa (Kenya) but I had never attended a full-blown African-style celebration. This dowry party, which took place a couple days before my friends' wedding, was catered completely by my friend's extended family. It was held in a church hall, and we could smell the curry and spices as we walked in. The tables were set with bowls of samosas and delicious fried mandazi.
Heineken, East African beer of choice!
The dowry ceremony itself was a largely symbolic pageant stemming from old customs in Burundi (no actual dowry was handed over!). Representatives of the two families negotiated back and forth over the marriage arrangements, to much hilarity, and the ceremony ended with a parade of pretty girls pretending to be the bride. My friend nimbly picked his real bride out of the lineup, and the feast began!
Like other East African feasts, this Burundian meal was varied and rich. There were several kinds of rice, including one with toasty spices (my favorite thing on the plate!). There was saucy stewed cassava, spicy chicken, roasted cubes of beef, green beans, and chapati.
A very key element of a Burundian feast, however, is missing from the photo above, and that is banana wine. This homemade concoction is essential at any Burundian celebration, my friend told me. It's very sweet and tastes very much like banana. They say it's only wine, but I suspect it's closer to moonshine — a glass will knock you over.
Banana wine showed up again at the wedding reception itself, a couple days later, along with similar dishes of food (also cooked by the bride's family) and, to complement, homestyle family favorites from the bridegroom's family — mac and cheese cooked by the bridegroom himself! And to top it off, the new bride and bridegroom were ushered into the reception by a surprise troupe of Burundian drummers who put on an amazing and vibrant performance (see them in action here, and read more about the significance of drums in Burundi culture).
Have you ever tried Burundian food? Have you ever been to an African wedding? It was such a pleasure to not only celebrate with our friend but to get a small taste of her family's culture — with joy, a meeting of cultures, and plates full of good food.
Related: Skip the Searching: 5 African Spice Blends to Make Yourself
(Images: Faith Durand)