Squid stir-fry with Pickled Mustard Greens is a classic rice plate meal that you can find at Cantonese comfort food restaurants in your local Chinatown. If you walk into a place where the majority of the patrons are speaking Cantonese, chances are that you will see this squid stir-fry on the menu!
Different Names for a Favorite Recipe
There are lots of English names for this dish, like “squid stir-fry with sour vegetables,” “squid stir-fry with pickled vegetables,” or “squid stir-fry with salted vegetables.”
All of these names are accurate, but it really depends on the background of the Chinese person translating the name. In Chinese, the most recognizable name is suān cài chǎo yóu yú, 酸菜炒魷魚 (Mandarin) which translates to “sour vegetable stir-fried squid.”
My eldest sister really enjoys this classic Squid stir-fry with Pickled Mustard Greens, and likes to get it for lunch whenever she is in Chinatown for a quick meal. She asked me if we were going to publish a recipe, so how could I refuse a request from big sis?
An Interesting Related Meaning!
Although this squid stir-fry is tasty, there is some history to it that does make it a bit less appetizing, if not just plain funny. The phrase “stir fried squid” in Chinese refers to being fired from your job.
And if you don’t believe me, just enter the Chinese characters, 炒魷魚 (chǎo yóu yú) into Google Translate, and sure enough, instead of “stir fried squid,” it comes up as “sacking!”
In the old days, if a Chinese man came home early in the afternoon unannounced, his wife would almost certainly say, “You stir-fried squid?!”
This old idiom dates back to times in China when employers generally gave complimentary lodgings to employees. Employees always provided their own bedding, so when someone got fired, they would roll up their blankets and belongings and hit the road. The rolled-up blanket looked like stir-fried squid, since squid curls up when cooked. Hence, the idiom was born. And it stuck.
Go figure. My parents explained it to me once when I was a teenager as they prepared this dish for dinner. It so happened that on the same day, my father found out that one of the Chinese summer staff got fired from a local hotel kitchen in upstate New York. They both chuckled at the coincidence of it all, and explained it to me when I gave them blank stares. True story!
So the next time you hear someone say “chǎo yóu yú,” you can ask if they were talking about a tasty Squid Stir-Fry with Pickled Mustard Greens, or if they got fired from their job! Regardless of the answer, give this tasty squid stir-fry a try.
Squid with Pickled Greens: Recipe Instructions
First, prepare your pickled mustard greens. These are sold in most Asian grocery stores in either the preserved foods section or near the pre-packaged vegetables. Most of the mustard greens are from Thailand, sold in vacuum-packed bags or jars.
Some are pre-cut and others are sold in larger bundles of greens. Each brand will be different, some saltier, others more sour. The sugar balances the pickled flavor, and you can adjust the recipe to your own taste.
After cutting the sour mustard greens, taste a small sample. If they are too salty for your taste, you can soak them in water for 10 minutes or longer to remove some of the salt.
That said, remember that these are pickled, salted mustard greens, and they should be salty and sour. I usually just give them a thorough rinse under cold water, and drain the excess water.
Next, prepare your squid. Sometimes you can find fresh squid that’s been cleaned at fish markets, but you can also buy frozen squid that have already been cleaned and defrost them.
Prepping Fresh Squid
If you have fresh squid that hasn’t been cleaned, you need to make sure you remove the ink sac from the head as well as the “beak” / backbone.
Squid also comes in different sizes and thicknesses, with or without the heads. If you buy the squid bodies, then all you need to do is score a cross hatch pattern with a knife on all sides, and cut them into bite-sized pieces. You can also use pre-cut frozen squid rings that are ready to cook after thawing and a quick rinse.
For this stir-fried squid recipe, I used a smaller-sized squid with the head and tentacles, which required a little bit more cleaning and preparation. If you need to clean your squid, follow these few steps (apologies for the graphic, yet unavoidable phrasing):
- Separate the head and tentacles from the body.
- Cut off the head, removing the “beak” or backbone of the squid, and discard. Keep the tentacles only.
- Inside the body of the squid, you will have to remove a clear piece of cartilage – just reach in there and you’ll find it.
- The last step is to peel off the outer spotted membrane/skin on the body, which peels off easily. The membrane is edible, but most remove it, as it looks pretty unappetizing. The tentacles will also have the membrane, but you can leave that intact.
- Rinse everything under clean running water, and drain in a colander.
Take the bodies of the squid, and cut them open until you have a flat piece of squid with the outside of the squid lying flat on your cutting board.
Lightly score the squid on a diagonal about halfway through, ensuring you are cutting on the inside of the squid body. Take care not to cut through to the bottom of the squid, or you’ll get slices instead of cross-hatches.
Repeat the scoring on an opposite diagonal to create a diamond pattern. After scoring, cut the squid pieces into approximately 2 x 3-inch rectangular pieces. Repeat until you have processed all of the squid and tentacles.
Lately, I have seen some Asian markets carry frozen squid that is already scored and pre-cooked, so all you need to do is thaw them out and they are ready for the wok! I bet after all that instruction, that sounds pretty appealing!
Boil 2 quarts of water in your wok, and add ½ teaspoon salt. Next, add the cut squid to the water, and stir for about 30 seconds, or until it turns a white opaque color. Transfer them out of the wok, and set aside to drain.
Next, add the smashed garlic, and let it fry for another 10 seconds. Smashing the ginger and garlic releases their flavors and infuses the oil!
Add the dried red chili peppers (if using), the white portions of the scallions, and stir-fry for 5 seconds. Make sure not to break the peppers, or the dish will be very spicy, but toasted whole chili peppers add a nice subtle flavor to this dish.
Add the pickled mustard greens to the wok, and stir-fry on medium high heat for 30 seconds. Add the Shaoxing wine. Continue to stir-fry for another 30 seconds, giving the mustard greens a good sear. Turn down the heat if the any of the aromatics start to burn!
Add the squid and stir for 30 seconds. Next, add the cornstarch and water mixture. Toss in the remaining green portions of the scallions, and simmer for another 30 seconds.
Add more chicken stock if the mixture is too thick, and more cornstarch and water if you want the sauce thicker. You can also add more chicken stock and seasonings accordingly if you like more sauce for this dish. Serve squid stir-fry with white rice!
Just remember to be careful who you serve this squid stir-fry to so you don’t get blamed for layoffs or firings!
Squid Stir-Fry with Pickled Mustard Greens
- 12 ounces pickled mustard greens (340g, cut in ½-inch by 2-inch strips)
- 1 pound cleaned fresh squid (450g, tentacles optional, scored)
- 1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 3 slices ginger (⅛-inch thick and smashed with the side of your knife)
- 3 cloves garlic (peeled and smashed)
- 5 dried red chili peppers (optional)
- 2 scallions (cut on a bias into 1-inch pieces)
- 1½ tablespoons Shaoxing wine
- ½ cup chicken stock
- ½ teaspoon sesame oil
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- ⅛ teaspoon ground white pepper
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch (mixed with 1 tablespoon water)
- Boil 2 quarts of water in your wok, and add ½ teaspoon salt. Next, add the cleaned, cut squid to the water, and stir for about 30 seconds, or until it turns a white opaque color. Transfer them out of the wok, and set aside to drain.
- Heat your wok over medium heat, and add 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil. Add the smashed ginger to the wok, and let it fry in the oil for 10 seconds. Next, add the smashed garlic, and let it fry for another 10 seconds.
- Add the dried whole chili peppers (if using), the white portions of the scallion, and stir-fry for 5 seconds. Make sure not to break the peppers, or the dish will be very spicy, but toasted whole chili peppers add a nice subtle flavor to this dish.
- Add the pickled mustard greens to the wok, and stir-fry on medium high heat for 30 seconds. Add the Shaoxing wine. Continue to stir-fry for another 30 seconds, giving the mustard greens a good sear. Turn down the heat if the any of the aromatics start to burn!
- Now, add the chicken stock back to the wok, and stir in the sesame oil, sugar, remaining ½ teaspoon of salt, and ground white pepper. Lower the heat, and let everything simmer for 3 minutes.
- Add the squid and stir for 30 seconds. Next, add the cornstarch and water mixture. Toss in the remaining green portions of the scallions, and simmer for another 30 seconds.
- Add more chicken stock if the mixture is too thick, and more cornstarch and water if you want the sauce thicker. You can also add more chicken stock and seasonings accordingly if you like more sauce for this dish.