Where there’s a problem, there’s an opportunity, as someone said to me recently. What a delightful little motto that is. I’m all for the power of positive thinking. I’ll spare you the gruesome tedium of reading about my struggles because everyone has enough of their own and really, it won’t do much for your no-doubt gleeful outlook on life. I will deliver all the information you need to receive in just one word: SKINT. Attractive fodder options for me right now are cheap or ideally, free. Frugal cooking skills are being tested. I’ve stopped thinking of foraging as some kind of romantic middle class pursuit and started approaching it in a more desperate, means of survival kind of way. Which is why I’ve been picking ants off trees and using them as a meat substitute.
Obviously I’m joking. For now. ‘Ants climbing a tree’ is the name of a popular Sichuan dish; no insects required. The crumbs of minced pork are said to look like ants climbing up the lengths of mung bean thread noodles; a typically brilliant Chinese moniker for a bowl of spicy chow.
Hands on hips, I stood and assessed the contents of an over-stuffed cupboard. Foraging starts at home and all that. The noodles were a gift from a mate and therefore free. The seasonings (chilli bean paste, soy, chilli oil, garlic etc.), all in house already and so just like the NHS, free at the point of usage. Chicken stock and pork mince were similarly extricated from the back of the freezer; the only ingredients bought on the day were the (essential) spring onions. Result.
Well, almost. The noodles were not mung bean but in the spirit of frugality I subbed them in; a bit of a mistake as they were super-glutinous with a tendency to clump. Not unpleasant but my ants were more gangs hiding in bushes than climbing up trees. The dish is typically Sichuan: boisterous with hot bean paste; salty and aromatic. I couldn’t resist adding a little funky Tianjin preserved vegetable too.
A soft opening then to a challenge which can only get harder as stocks dwindle. I must not cave to the obvious parsimonious choices: baked spuds or beans for example; even worse – together. I can live on very little money, just as long as I don’t get hit where it really hurts. Food is the most primitive of all comforts, as someone or other once said. There’s a big difference between choosing to eat an omelette every so often and actually having to eat one. This is the cusp of a period of culinary creativity at its most stretching; it’s one thing to dream up a dish when you’ve got any ingredient you wish at your disposal, quite another when options are limited. I won’t be shedding any tears over memories of rib-eye steaks or fine wines though. Like I said, no problem, but an opportunity.
Ants Climbing A Tree (this recipe is from Sunflower’s website, which is really reliable. I only made a couple of adjustments, which were to add some preserved vegetable as I am very fond of it and to omit the celery).
200g mung bean/dried glass noodles
2 tablespoons oil
3 cloves chopped garlic
2 tablespoons chilli bean sauce/paste
300g minced pork
1 tablespoon light soy
1-2 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon Tianjin preserved vegetable, rinsed and chopped
1 chilli, chopped
1-2 teaspoons chilli oil
300ml chicken stock (or vegetable)
2 spring onions, for garnish
Extra chopped chilli, for garnish
Soak the noodles in warm water for about 15 minutes, with their strings on. Then drain, remove the strings and cut into shorter lengths.
Heat the oil in a pan then add the garlic, ginger and preserved vegetable if using for about 15 seconds then the chilli bean paste until fragrant. Add the pork mince and cook until brown, breaking it up into small pieces with a spoon as you stir and cook it. Add the soy, sugar and chilli (if using), followed by the noodles and stock. Let cook until the noodles have absorbed all the stock.
Garnish with spring onions, extra chilli and chilli oil.