Ants climbing a tree

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.

Category: Meat, Noodles, Sichuan | Tags: , , , , , , 23 comments »

23 Responses to “Ants climbing a tree”

  1. gastrogeek

    I’ve been meaning to try this recipe for ages, yours looks mouthwateringly good. There’s nothing like being a bit brassic to really get those creative juices flowing, can’t wait to see what you whip up next!

  2. Ollie

    Gorgeous-looking dish. And a gorgeous-looking dish to serve it on. (I’ll resist saying that the person who made it was also a dish.)

  3. KSalty

    Sometimes the frugal dishes are the best ones – there are entire cuisines built on the tenets you mention above. Great looking chow, and may I suggest supplementing your cupboard foraging adventures with the odd bit of ligging?
    K x

  4. Catherine

    I just foraged in my cupboards and freezer and made a beef ragu with papardelle. Have you ever done dumpster diving? I only did it once and that was for bananas. I was directed to the clean dumpster by the fruit and veg store. They even helped me as they had longer arms than I do!

  5. Jess

    Looking forward to this – I relish the challenge of skintness (and also the opportunity to make puttanesca, mainly for the name but also I suppose the back story) but generally end up pretty sodding bored after a few days (where I usually don’t get further than pasta or noodles). However if you’re in the mood this is where I turn for store cupboard tastyness.

  6. tobias cooks!

    I had this a a kid a lot in a little Chinese place, near where we lived. Lots of memories connected to this dish. Thanks!

  7. Tweets that mention Ants climbing a tree — Food Stories -- Topsy.com

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  8. Sarah

    I’ve been skint for a while now, but I’m not that great at living within my means, and tend not to compromise on food. I didn’t give up my Riverford veg box, and I’m glad I didn’t as I’m positive it actually saved me money by keeping me out of the supermarkets, and forcing me to eat what I had on hand. I probably haven’t been eating as many lentils as I should.

  9. Lizzie

    Bloody skintness. Dhal is the way forward I reckon.

    Great looking dish, but I agree; those noodles have a tendency to turn super gluey.

  10. Margaret

    I agree with Ollie, I too noticed the gorgeous dish you served it up in! Great minds …

  11. Jessica

    Even with the substitutions, this dish looks both pleasing to the eye and appetizing to the belly!

  12. Jonathan

    Lovely photo in a very impressive bowl. This is definitely one of the best named dishes out there. What’s next?

  13. Tv Food and Drink

    Go SKINT! Keeps you creative and tricky.

  14. Katie

    Being short on cash is well miserable so you have my full sympathy. We’ve gone down to one income in our house and I’m constantly trying to stretch our food out inbetween shopping trips.

    My budget-conscious food stuff of the moment is houmous. I make a big batch at the beginning of the week and chuck in something different every time I make it so the family don’t get bored of it.

    It’s a great way to use up those half used jars of sunblush tomatoes, olives or roasted peppers that lurk endlessly in the fridge door.

    My husband loves it for his packed lunch and my one-year-old goes mad for it spread on bagel.

    Your noodle dish looks fabulous – the vibrant blue bowl is stunning.

    Katie x

  15. Helen (Fuss Free Flavours)

    I love foraging from the back of the food cupboards. With £6 for my co-op boxes each week I think I could survive for about 6 weeks with what is in the flat. It would be an interesting experiment for sure.

    Many years ago I used to tour 4 Sainsbury Locals in the city on a friday evening at 6.30 and fill my freezer for about £5 with the reduced items.

    Yours looks great.

  16. Alex

    That looks like everything that is good in a single dish.

  17. Sharmila

    Mmm, I love this dish.

    Skintness is good for creativity but does get frustrating at times.

    I do actually have a pheasant in my freezer I would be willing to give you.

    No, i mean it. I bought two at the end of the game season in a fit of enthusiasm and haven’t done anything with them. They are now languishing, potentially never to be cooked.

    That pheasants there if you want it.

  18. shayma

    helen, whatever you prepare turns out incredibly beautiful- skint or not skint. i love this dish- i use chicken instead of pork- and i too got it from Sunflower’s most excellent website, and most excellent cook you are (and photographer). x shayma

  19. An American in London

    “Not unpleasant but my ants were more gangs hiding in bushes than climbing up trees. ”

    Not only was that sentence highly amusing, but also it explains why, when I first saw the photo at the top of this post, I thought: “those noodles look wrong.”

  20. Essex Eating

    Holy shit this looks good, total food porn. Its lunchtime, and Im starving now. Ive never encountered Tianjin preserved vegetables before, what are they exactly?

  21. Amy B.

    Good news! Foodista is inviting you to attend this year’s International Food Blogger Conference in Seattle on August 27-29! There also are sponsorships offered that you can take advantage of! For more information, check this page out.

    Hope to see you there! Keep on blogging. :-)

  22. Mallika

    Just ate this at Bar Shu last week. Instant love. Great blog. See you next week at the shoot.

  23. sunflower

    Love your plate…

    These noodles you have there look like wheat vermicelli, very fine and soft noodles only take seconds to cook. Lucky your ants climbing the tree did not turn into a plateful of soggy mush.


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