ANTS CLIMB A TREE (mayi shang shu)
Chinese haute cuisine abounds in phoenix and dragon tails; earthier peasant food uses more mundane images, like pock-marked women or, in this case, tree-climbing ants. Even Mrs. Chiang is unsure of the origin of the name for this famous Szechwanese combination of cellophane noodles and chopped meat; perhaps the noodles represent the tree and the tiny pieces of meat the ants. It is a brightly spiced and easily prepared noodle dish with a sharp, clear taste. As the main course in an informal meal, this recipe will serve four or five people, depending on the size of their appetites.
4 packages (2 ounces each) dried cellophane noodles
4 cups boiling water, approximately
1 pound ground pork or beef
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon sesame oil
6 cloves garlic
1/2 -inch piece fresh ginger
5 tablespoons peanut oil
(ginger and garlic)
- 2 tablespoons hot pepper paste
1/4 cup soy sauce
2/3 cup water
1 1/4 teaspoons salt, or to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
Put the cellophane noodles in a large bowl and cover them with boiling water. Set them aside to soak for at least 20 minutes.
Put the ground pork in a bowl and add the soy sauce and sesame oil to it.
Clean the scallions, then slice them, both white part and green, crosswise as fine as you can. Add half of the chopped scallions to the pork and mix well; set the rest of the scallions aside.
Peel the garlic cloves, then chop them into tiny pieces, roughly the size of a match head.
Peel the ginger, then mince it very fine, until it reaches the consistency of coarse bread crumbs.
When the cellophane noodles have become nice and soft, rinse them several times under cold water and then drain well.
Heat your wok or pan over a high flame for 15 seconds, then pour in the oil. It will be hot enough to cook with when the first tiny bubbles form and a few small wisps of smoke appear.
When the oil is ready, toss in the chopped ginger and garlic and the hot pepper paste. Stir-fry these ingredients together for 30 seconds, using your cooking shovel or spoon to keep everything moving around in the hot oil,
Add the meat and continue to stir-fry for about 1 minute, taking particular care to break up any large chunks of meat.
Now pour in the additional soy sauce and stir-fry everything for 30 seconds longer.
Add the cellophane noodles to the pan and cook for about 1 minute, turning them over occasionally and taking several cuts at them with your shovel or spoon while they cook so that they won't be too long to eat.
After you have fried the noodles for about 1 minute, add the water and the rest of the scallions. Taste for salt and add as much as you need to give a rich, clear taste to the noodles, then cover the pan and let simmer over a moderate flame for 3 or 4 minutes.
Just before you are ready to serve the noodles, sprinkle some regular black pepper over them. This adds a pleasantly sharp flavor to the dish.