Pop Cantonese: 炒魷魚 Stir-Fried Squid

Black soy bean stir-fried squid (si6 ziu1 caau2 jau2 豉椒炒魷) is one of the most popular homemade dishes in Cantonese cuisine. Heat up some garlic and diced spring onion, toss in some slices of squid scored with a criss-cross pattern, then add a dash of Shaoxing wine to enhance the seafood flavour. Finally, season with some hoi sin sauce and voila – a nutritious and flavourful dish is ready to serve.

However popular stir-fried squid is on the dining table at home, or in local restaurants like cha chaan teng, if you hear an expression like lou5 sai3 caau2 zo2 ngo5 jau2 (老細炒咗我魷)—literally “boss stir-fried me squid”—don’t congratulate whoever is saying it, because in Cantonese slang, the Cantonese saying caau2 jau4 jyu2 (炒魷魚, “stir-fried squid”) means dismissing someone from employment.

But just how did such an appealing dish turn into a euphemism for something so unpleasant? It goes back to the years after World War II, when millions of migrants from mainland China came to Hong Kong for work and to escape political persecution. Many of them ended up in unskilled positions whose low pay made it difficult to make ends meet. To make up for the poor salaries, many businesses offered food and accommodation to their employees. 

That didn’t mean they offered well-stocked canteens and a bed for every worker. Company owners subcontracted meals that consisted of simple homemade dishes that were cooked in large quantities every day and delivered during meal times. The entire company sat together to share the dishes, regardless of hierarchy, as if the whole team were a family. 

This was particularly common in the manufacturing, construction and security industries, since employees needed to stay near their posts. That was true even for their housing situation. Rather than dormitories, workers were offered a corner of the factory where they could stay the night. They had to bring their own beddings and most could only afford to curl themselves up in a duvet. 

If an employee was laid off, they would have to pack up their belongings, which usually didn’t amount to much – just basic clothes and cutlery. When they wrapped it up in their duvet, which was usually white, it looks like a squid curling up when it was thrown into a hot pan. The image was so common and so symbolic of Hong Kong’s postwar working environment that it became a popular expression that is still used today, even if it is rare for employers to offer food and accommodation.

It’s worth noting that, if you are at a company lunch, there’s no need to worry if your boss orders some stir-fried squid at the table. The dish itself doesn’t carry any negative implication, and a good meal may even enhance the rapport between colleagues. 

Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.


Image courtesy @koreamamahk.

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