It’s two in the morning at Wangji Chaozhou, a rice porridge (粥, zhōu) restaurant in Changning that stays open till 5 a.m. – late even by the standards of restless Dingxi Lu, a bustling, neon-lit thoroughfare close to several college campuses. The waitress on duty is either suspicious by nature, or made more so by her late-night schedule. She regards us impassively, unwilling to let the slightest flicker of amusement disturb her bored demeanor.
While a bowl of zhou – also known as congee – is a regular breakfast item served by grandparents all over Shanghai, here it is offered at all times behind a storefront with the Chinese characters for “welcome” flashing in red and a line of roasted ducks hanging in the window. The restaurant’s décor, complete with a strip of gold-framed mirrors and a row of ketchup-red banquettes, does more to distract diners than to improve the ambiance, but the selection of dishes, particularly the zhou, has made the place a neighborhood favorite.
The humble congee in fact has a long history. The legend goes that when a deadly famine threatened the lives of millions of Chinese peasants during the Qing Dynasty, the Manchu emperor Yongzheng (ruled 1722-1725) decreed that every subject be given a simple bowl of zhou. When he found out that the officials were stingy with the rice but generous with the water, the warrior-emperor, in his rage, ordered that the zhou be so thick that a pair of chopsticks could be driven into the center of the mixture and stuck upright like two antennas. Perhaps Emperor Yongzheng’s most lasting legacy, the Chinese love of a thick bowl of zhou has endured through the centuries since.
At peak lunch and dinner hours, large, boisterous crowds often take over both floors of Wangji Chaozhou. During the early-morning hours, the crowd is a bit mellower, but everyone comes for the same reason: the restaurant’s namesake claypot congee (砂锅粥, shāguō zhōu). At the top of the list is the pork ribs congee (排骨粥, páigǔ zhōu), which arrives still bubbling in the claypot, an earthenware vessel designed to retain the heat of the porridge. The zhou is perhaps not quite thick enough for Emperor Yongzheng’s standards, but it is hearty and contains pieces of pork rib, giving it a meaty, smoky flavor. The pumpkin zhou offers a lighter, sweeter option. Cut into chunks, the pumpkin is cooked until it is as soft as the white rice porridge that envelops it. The salty seafood zhou has an abundance of shrimp, which come unpeeled. (Most diners pick the crustaceans out of the clay bowl with their chopsticks, remove the shells in their mouths and leave the remnants on the table.) Aside from the congee, the crispy roast duck (脆皮烤鸭, cuì pí kǎoyā) is also a solid favorite. This comes sliced, and have an extra bit of fat insulation under the skin to create a triple-layer effect of skin, fat and finally meat, which yields an exceptionally rich duck flavor.
A few other items on the menu suffer from less than professional translation attempts. A dish called “Delicious Handheld Devices” (美味掌中宝, měiwèi zhǎngzhōng bǎo) is not the next frontier in smartphones, but actually deep-fried chicken feet, which are cut into cube-like pieces and fried with green onions, sweet potatoes and red peppers. The texture is a sort of gummy crunch, at first unfamiliar to foreign palates, but with a wonderful taste that ultimately wins most over. “Soya Sauce Emperor Jian Jiao” (鼓油皇尖椒, gǔ yóu huáng jiān jiāo) is not a food-loving head of state but a fried green pepper filled with a spicy pork meat mixture whose sweat-inducing heat only becomes apparent a few bites in.
By the end of our meal at Wangji Chaozhou, the suspicious waitress had yet to warm up to us, but the stellar congee and other dishes left us feeling deeply satisfied. This is a spot worth returning to, we decided, day or night.