Congee is a bland food. That's why it's a breakfast food in countries from Vietnam to Japan. But at the congee restaurants on Fuxing Road between Da'an and Technology Building MRT stations, it's a midnight snack.
Xiao Lizi is one of those restaurants with floor-to-ceiling windows revealing an ample buffet. A hostess stands outside telling passersby to stop for a snack. The place is less flashy but more popular than the others on either side and both floors fill up by 8pm, with customers streaming in and out into the wee hours of the morning. With a clean and simple decor, it's the perfect place to take a breather from your night on the town.
Congee can suffer from bad texture, which just compounds the problem of its blandness. But the congee you'll find at Xiao Lizi is a far cry from the leftover rice soaking in milky water that visits many a breakfast table in Taiwan. The ingredients are simple enough -- rice and water -- but a good consistency is difficult to attain with congee. If you cook it for too long, the rice grains disintegrate -- too short and the broth will be too watery. After cooking, the excess water can be drained to create a Western porridge-like consistency or left in to make it more like a soup. Xiao Lizi's congee is somewhere in between. Chunks of yam are thrown in to sweeten and thicken the mixture and the result is a pot of smooth, glowing goo.
The buffet table is the other option at Xiao Lizi. The first thing you must remember to put on your tray is a bowl of youtiao -- a stick of fried bread cut into sections to be soaked in the congee until it's tender and squishy.
Another typical congee side dish is thousand-year egg. One of the substances used to preserve the eggs (is it the charcoal or the lime?) reacts strangely with sweet flavors and if you take a bite of congee after a bite of the thousand-year egg without thoroughly rinsing your mouth, you will be greeted with a most unpleasant bitterness.
I found that, in general, the sweeter dishes went best with the congee, especially the deliciously crunchy lotus root and the tender leeks. If your stomach is up for it at that time of night, there are many other tempting dishes to try: stinky tofu, kung pao chicken, and several hearty stews. A selection of greens can be stir-fried or boiled to order.
If the thought of eating salty, fried dishes with sweet porridge turns you off, just ask for a pot of steamed rice instead.