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As any foreign learner will attest to, Cantonese is a famously tricky language to grasp. Unlike Mandarin Chinese, a large portion of Cantonese is made of slang and colloquialisms that are pretty much unintelligible to those who are not native speakers. Sometimes, the origins and deeper meanings behind these phrases are also mysterious to most Hongkongers themselves!
In order to sound fluent in Cantonese, you need to use colloquialisms; in this instalment, we’re introducing slang phrases that are related to food—fitting since Hongkongers are such foodies! If you’d like to learn some creative insults or have had difficulty understanding what cha chaan teng servers yell to each other despite knowing a fair bit of Canto, this guide will sort you right out. Stick around for Localiiz’s Canto Slang series, and we’ll have you speaking like a true Hongkonger in no time!
Pronunciation: daai6 tau4 haa1
Literal translation: Big-headed prawn
We’re not quite sure why prawns have continuously been insulted this way, but this phrase is commonly used to describe someone who is quite absent-minded. It might not be quite as popular a slang phrase among younger Hongkongers, but its meaning is still very clearly understood. Often said with no small amount of exasperation.
How to use: “How can you forget your keys for three straight days? I’ve never seen a ‘daai tau haa’ like you!”
Pronunciation: zau2 ceng1
Literal translation: Walking greens
Plenty of people don’t like green garnishes on their food, and this is the phrase they would use to tell waiters to leave out such vegetables in their dishes. This applies to all common garnishes, including spring onions, scallions, and coriander, but the word “走” (zau2) can be paired with virtually any ingredient you want to exclude—very useful for those with allergies. We just detest coriander with a passion, so walk those greens right off our plate, please!
How to use: “If I can’t have these noodles ‘zau ceng,’ then I’d rather not have them at all.”
Pronunciation: leng3 zai2
Literal translation: Handsome guy
Often heard in cha chaan tengs or local eateries, ordering a “handsome guy” will get you a bowl of plain rice! If only being handed an actual good-looking man was this easy, amirite? Similarly, “靚女” (leng3 neoi2; “pretty girl”) means congee, so feel free to use these phrases the next time you’re ordering food. Just be sure to prefix it with measure classifiers, such as “一碗” (jat1 wun2) for “one bowl,” so the server does not assume you’re trying to flirt with them!
How to use: “I’m so hungry today I could eat three bowls of ‘leng zai.’”
Pronunciation: jat1 gau6 faan6
Literal translation: A lump of rice
Yes, rice is so ubiquitous here that it’s even made it into our insults, but as far as offensive phrases go, this one is pretty cute. “A lump of rice” is used to describe someone who is a bit of an idiot and is generally slow to react. Its closest English equivalent would be accusing someone of being “a useless lump.”
How to use: “Stop standing there like ‘jat gau faan’ and make yourself useful for once!”
Pronunciation: daap3 toi4
Literal translation: (To) pile up tables
This is something diners at cha chaan tengs or dai pai dongs are often asked to do. To “pile up tables” means to eat while sitting with complete strangers at the same table. Many of Hong Kong’s eateries are so small that unless you’re willing to wait for a long time to get your own table, this is the only option for a quick meal. Having to “daap toi” is especially common over lunchtimes, where even if you arrive at a local restaurant with a large enough group of people to warrant your own table, your group might well be asked to split up and “daap toi” in small bunches instead.
How to use: “I need to hurry back for a meeting so I don’t mind having to ‘daap toi’ during lunch.”
Pronunciation: haang4 gaai1
Literal meaning: (To) walk on the streets
While “行街” is also used to refer to the act of going out strolling or shopping for leisure, in this case, it’s actually another Cantonese slang phrase commonly used by local restaurant staff. If you hear someone yell out a food order to the kitchen staff, followed by “haang gaai,” it means that the dish is for takeaway.
How to use: “Beef noodles and iced lemon tea, ‘haang gaai,’ please!”
Pronunciation: dung1 gwaa1 dau6 fu6
Literal translation: Winter melon and tofu
This arbitrary mix of vegetarian foods is used to signify the sudden cropping up of a crisis or an emergency, most likely even a death. It is said that this Cantonese slang phrase came about because the meal that follows after a Chinese funeral is usually a vegetarian one—presumably with dishes containing winter melon and tofu—and therefore, they were used as a reference for misfortune by extension. With such inauspicious connotations, you’re unlikely to find both these foods in a single dish served in any Chinese restaurant!
How to use: “Be very careful, you can’t let any ‘dung gwaa dau fu’ happen to her puppy while you’re pet-sitting!”
Pronunciation: sou3 gaai1
Literal translation: (To) sweep the streets
To enjoy “sou gaai” doesn’t mean being particularly civic-minded about public cleanliness! Instead, this phrase is used to describe walking around and visiting various food stalls to feast on an assortment of street-side delicacies. Imagine a pub crawl, but with Hong Kong’s many food stalls instead—definitely our idea of a good time!
How to use: “James found these curry fishballs that are apparently the best in Hong Kong, so we’re going to ‘sou gaai’ together this weekend.”
Pronunciation: sik6 jyun5 faan6
Literal translation: Eat soft rice
Rice that has been cooked to a mush takes no effort at all to eat. Therefore, this phrase is used to insultingly describe a man who is financially supported by a woman, a deadbeat who sponges off his wife or partner. A slightly lesser-known phrase with the same meaning is “食拖鞋飯” (sik6 to1 haai2 faan6), meaning “to eat slippers rice,” because the man can just lounge around in his home slippers if his wife is the one bringing home the bacon!
How to use: “The guy who lives next door is always being shamed by the neighbourhood aunties as someone who ‘sik jyun faan’ just because he’s a stay-at-home dad.”
Pronunciation: gaa1 dai2
Literal translation: (To) add bottom
If you take this phrase to mean adding to a base, then it might be easier to decipher. Requesting for “加底” at a local Hong Kong restaurant means you want to add more rice or noodles to your portion—hence bulking out the base of the dish, geddit? While restaurants will gladly accommodate this request, they obviously won’t do it free of charge; an extra “adding bottom” charge will just be placed onto your bill.
How to use: “Can you ‘gaa dai’ to my Hainanese chicken rice, please?”
Pronunciation: sik6 jim4 do1 gwo3 nei5 sik6 mai5
Literal translation: Eat salt more than you eat rice
The Cantonese language is a very sassy one, and this is one of those phrases we love for its wit and attitude. Telling someone you have eaten more grains of salt than they have eaten grains of rice is to emphasise that you have many years on them, so this idiom is used to describe having more experience. To be used in the most derisive tone one can muster.
How to use: “Just do yourself a favour and take my advice; I have ‘sik jim do gwo nei sik mai.’”
Pronunciation: cung5 hau2 mei6
Literal pronunciation: Heavy flavour
While a more literal meaning of this phrase is to prefer food that has strong and bold flavours to lighter tastes, it can also be slang for a person who has unconventional preferences, for food or most other likes. The insinuation behind this description is that these things aren’t usually well-liked, and it is therefore weird of the person to be partial to them.
How to use: “Is it reductive to assume that people who like stinky tofu are also ‘cung hau mei’ with other things in life?”
Pronunciation: seoi2 jyu2
Literal translation: Water turtle; soft-shelled turtle
Calling someone a soft-shelled turtle is to proclaim that they are a bit of a sucker; someone who can be duped or deceived easily. Usually used in the context of convincing someone not to be naive enough to be tricked by another person.
How to use: “Don’t be fooled into thinking she actually loves you; she’s just taking you for a ‘seoi jyu.’”
Pronunciation: sik6 dau6 fu6
Literal translation: (To) eat tofu
We love tofu, but this slang phrase is anything but good. “Eating tofu” supposedly originated from the vegetarian meal that people would prepare for friends and relatives after they have completed the funeral ceremonies for a death in the family. These meals would attract people who were not even invited to the funeral, who were just after the free food—this shameless taking of advantage is therefore called “食豆腐.” The meaning of the phrase since then has narrowed somewhat to refer to taking advantage in the sense of unwanted sexual advances.
How to use: “Keep an eye on Emily tonight—every time we’re out, some sleazy guy will always go up to her and try to ‘sik dau fu.’”
Pronunciation: laai3 haa1 mou1 soeng2 sik6 tin1 ngo4 juk6
Literal translation: Toad wanting to eat swan meat
Another one of those delightfully odd but evocative Cantonese slang phrases, a toad who wishes to eat the meat of a swan is desiring or hankering after something that it’s not worthy of. That’s why this phrase is used to describe an ugly man craving the attention of a pretty girl, to be out of one’s league.
How to use: “Does he really think she’ll even give him the time of day? He’s seriously ‘laai haa mou soeng sik tin ngo juk.’”
Pronunciation: bou1 din6 waa2 zuk1
Literal translation: (To) boil telephone congee
Boiling congee is something that’s a rather slow process, so to figuratively boil congee with one’s phone means to be chatting on the phone for a long time. In a similar vein, to “煲劇集” (bou1 kek6 zaap6) or “boil a TV drama” means to sit and binge a television series over a period of time.
How to use: “Mum will always ‘bou din waa zuk’ with a different friend or relative every day.”
Pronunciation: gai1 tung4 aap3 gong2
Literal translation: Chicken speaking to duck
A chicken would not understand a duck quacking at it, so this idiom stands for barriers in communications. This could mean people literally speaking to each other in different languages, or people talking at cross purposes, unable to reach an agreement or a common understanding.
How to use: “Trying to talk to him about gender politics is just like ‘gai tung aap gong’—I don’t think he will ever understand.”
Pronunciation: saang1 gau6 caa1 siu1 hou2 gwo3 saang1 nei5
Literal translation: Giving birth to a piece of char siu is better than giving birth to you
And of course, we have saved the best for last: this classic Cantonese admonishment that every Hongkonger has heard from their mother! There probably isn’t a single local Hong Kong kid who has escaped the curse of the superior char siu. Parents would often use this insulting phrase to scold their child for being lazy, emphasising their uselessness because at least a piece of honey barbecue pork is delicious to eat!
How to use: “You don’t want to be a doctor or a lawyer, you have no extracurriculars to speak of, and you got an 85 on this exam? Seriously, ‘saang gau caa siu hou gwo saang nei.’”