Chen Tian Ji has been serving up this unique Cantonese dish for over 40 years.
The city of Guangzhou in southern China is known as the birthplace of Cantonese cuisine. Its food scene is vibrant no matter when and where you go.
Tucked away at the end of Baohua Road in a quiet residential neighborhood is one of the city’s street food mainstays, Chen Tian Ji. It draws locals and tourists alike because of its tasty provisions and storied history.
Chen Tian Ji only sells three items: fish skin salad, a local cold dish; congee, or rice porridge, with fish meat; and rice noodle rolls. The shop opens every morning at 9:30. Most customers are regulars who have been visiting since they were kids. Although the closing time is technically 10 pm, the owner always lets a few customers linger a bit to finish their meal.
The owner, Chen Yinghua, is part of the third generation of her family to run the shop. She took over from her father in 2015, when he considered closing the store because of health issues.
At the time, the younger Chen was working as a bank manager and had little interest in taking over the family business. But when rumors began to spread that her father was considering retirement, she saw what her family’s shop meant to the neighborhood and decided to keep it open.
Chen’s grandfather started the business in the 1970s shortly after arriving in Guangzhou. He was from Shunde, about 30 miles outside Guangzhou, and brought many local dishes with him. He started working as a street food vendor, selling stir-fried noodles, congee, and fish balls made with minced dace, a freshwater fish that’s a favorite in Shunde.
The story goes that while the elder Chen was pulverizing fish meat, he noticed the skin was left unused. “My grandfather thought it was a waste not to use the whole fish,” Chen Yinghua says, “so he invented fish skin salad.”
Fish skin salad is made by mixing boiled fish skin with soy sauce, ginger, scallions, peanuts, and sesame. The result is an umami-filled dish with a mix of different textures—crunch from the peanuts and sesame, and a bit of chewiness from the fish skin.
Preparing one salad requires 12 to 15 fish because only the skin is used. Every morning, Chen heads to a local market to pick out fresh dace. She has strict requirements—no marks or scratches on the skin.
(Read more: The most authentic fish balls in Hong Kong)
At her restaurant, she gets to work scraping the skin off the fish. The meat is set aside to serve in congee. After the skin is removed, she blanches it before transferring it to a cold water bath to let it contract. This process gives the fish skin its uniquely chewy texture.
In the 40 years since Chen’s grandfather opened the shop, little has changed. Many of the old customers still come back time and again, and the sign on the door is the original one her grandfather put up.
“I may not earn a lot of money by running this shop,” Chen says, “but I won’t feel the same kind of fulfillment anywhere else.
“Both my grandfather and father committed their lives to this shop. I hope I can be like them and commit my life to it, too.”