Who would have thought you’d want ants in your food? Ants Climbing a Tree, also known as minced meat vermicelli, originated in the Sichuan Province and is a characteristic dish of this region and is also a popular dish in Chongqing City. The minced meat sticking to the noodles resembles ants crawling on tree branches and is so named.
According to legend, Dou Tianzhang who lived in Chuzhou needed to travel to the capital for an examination. He did not have the money needed for such a trip, so he approached a creditor, Mrs Cai, for a loan.
Mrs Cai said he must secure his loan by giving his daughter, Dou E, to marry her son. Dou E did this willingly and was kind to both her new husband and her mother-in-law.
After a time, Dou E’s husband became ill and died, and her mother-in-law also became sick. Dou E asked her mother-in-law to seek medical treatment, but she also tried to help her mother-in-law by cooking nice meals for her and nurse her back to health.
Her mother-in-law began to improve, but the economy worsened, and she could no longer afford to buy the good food her mother-in-law needed. Dou E bit the bullet and bought the food on credit.
The next time she went to buy food, the shop keeper said she could not buy any more until she paid what she owed. Dou E begged for even just a small amount, and the shop keeper gave it to her. She wondered what she could do with such a small amount of meat.
She still had a small amount vermicelli at home in the kitchen, so she soaked it in water to make it soft and edible, and then fried it. She added the fried noodles to the meat she had cooked up with onions, ginger, soy sauce, and a bit of pepper.
At last, she took it to her ailing and bed ridden mother-in-law, who asked her, “Dou E, what is that fragrant dish you have been cooking?”
“It is fried noodles.”
When she looked at it, she said, “Why are there ants in it?”, but when she knew the whole story, she said, “We’ll call this ‘Ants Climbing a Tree’ because the meat is so small and spread out all over the noodles, that’s just what it looks like!”
The traditional way to make Ants Climbing a Tree is to fry the dry noodles in oil first. The noodles’ water content is 10% -20% which causes them to swell quickly at high temperatures.
It takes about the same time to soak the noodles at the beginning instead, and then add them into the sauce with the minced meat and seasoning to absorb the flavor of the sauce, so that is what I do here.
A simpler way of serving is to place the fried noodles on the plate first and pour the minced meat sauce directly on them. No matter which way you choose to do it, fried noodles are troublesome in that you will need a pot of hot oil and will need to pay close attention to the frying. Our family prefers the noodles soaked to make them soft, and blended into the sauce.
Here’s what you’ll need to make Ants Climbing a Tree:
125 g mung bean Cellophane Noodles
Glass Noodles or Cellophane Noodles come in a few varieties: rice starch noodles are not suitable for this dish as they are too soft and break easily. Sweet potato or potato starch noodles are too tough for this dish and difficult to separate. Mung bean Cellophane Noodles are the happy medium and best choice.
Soak the dry noodles in cold water (be sure to use cold water – hot water will soften them too much) for about five minutes and drain. You don’t want to soak them for very long as the noodles will need to soak up some of the sauce later on.
150 g diced pork
Put the pork in the refrigerator or freezer, so it hardens up making it easier to cut into small cubes. Of course, to save you the trouble, you can also use ready-made diced pork, but it is usually tougher and needs to be fried for longer.
8 g ginger, chopped finely
8 g scallions (green onion), chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped finely
200 ml chicken stock (or you can use the same amount of water instead, but it will not be as tasty)
2 teaspoons Pixian bean paste
This amount depends on your personal preference if you really like the taste of it you can add more.
1 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons cooking wine
30 ml soy sauce
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
10 g chopped scallion (green onion)
1/2 fresh red pepper, cut into thin slices
Once you have the ingredients ready, take a heavy based non-stick pan and preheat it for 2 minutes. Add the vegetable oil.
Put the diced pork into the pan and quickly stir fry until most of the surface has turned a pale gray.
Push the meat to one side of the pan and stir the Pixian bean paste in the space until the bean oil begins to precipitate the red oil.
Next, pour in the onions, ginger, and garlic, and stir quickly until the fragrance is released.
Add the soy sauce and cooking wine, and stir to combine.
Pour in the chicken stock and bring to the boil.
Add in the noodles
and stir continuously with chopsticks so that they come into full contact with the sauce. The noodle taste changes very quickly as the sauce adheres more and more to them, so you need to keep tasting until it is to your satisfaction. If you find the noodles take up too much of the sauce or the noodles are still a little dry, you can add a little more water or stock until you get a satisfactory taste.
Warm a shallow casserole on the stove (or in the oven) and dish the Ants Climbing a Tree into it. Serving this meal in a warm ceramic dish greatly increases the flavor and enjoyment by keeping the food warm for longer as you eat it, and not have it go cold half way through your meal.
Don’t forget put down placemats or insulation of some kind to protect your table from hot spots!
Filling, satisfying and delicious!