Don’t be put off by its weird name! “Ants climbing a tree” is a super tasty Sichuan dish containing vermicelli noodles, minced meat and various pungent seasonings.
Sometimes it’s not easy to understand the menu of a foreign cuisine when the name of a dish says something extremely strange. Take “Ants climbing a tree (蚂蚁上树)” for example. If you’ve never heard of this classic Chinese dish, I guess you are put off by its confusing, uninviting name. Hold on a minute! Let me introduce this super tasty dish and show you how to make it in your own kitchen.
Whoever came up with the name “Ants climbing a tree” has a pretty unusual imagination. In fact, what you get on the plate is mung bean vermicelli noodles (tree branches) stir fried with minced meat (ants) and sprinkled with spring onion (tree leaves). Salty, spicy and aromatic, it’s one of the signature dishes of the famous Sichuan cuisine (You can find more about vermicelli noodles in the post on steamed garlic prawns with vermicelli).
Over the years I’ve tasted “Ants climbing a tree” many times in restaurants. I enjoyed some of them but not others. To me, a great plate of “Ants climbing a tree” should have:
- Balanced flavour: it’s not overly salty but highly fragrant. It’s spicy with a hint of sweetness.
- Perfect texture: the vermicelli is soft to chew but not mushy.
- Right amount of sauce: most of the liquid should be absorbed by the noodles. Yet it still tastes very moist.
- An extra zing: add garlic and spring onion at the very end to retain their fresh flavour.
Through experimenting in my kitchen, I’ve come up with a simple, straightforward recipe that produces a very satisfying dish of “Ants climbing a tree”. It’s quite addictive! Although on a Chinese dining table this dish is usually served with plain rice (along with other savoury dishes), sometimes I enjoy having it as a quick lunch on its own. If you wish to do so, remember to slightly reduce the usage of Sichuan chilli bean paste. Otherwise you might find it a bit too salty to have on its own.
Ants climbing a tree: spicy vermicelli stir-fry (蚂蚁上树)
- 100 g dry mung bean vermicelli noodles, 3.5oz
- 1.5 tbsp cooking oil
- 1 tbsp Sichuan chilli bean paste, see note 1
- 1/2 tsp chilli powder
- 150 g minced pork/beef, 5.3oz
- 1 tsp minced ginger
- 1 tsp Shaoxing rice wine
- 1/2 tsp light soy sauce
- 250 ml hot water
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1/4 tsp white pepper
- 1 stalk scallions, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- fresh chilli, chopped, optional
- Soak noodles in warm water for 5 minutes (or in cold water for 10 minutes) until they are soft and pliable. Rinse under cold water and drain. Set aside.
- Heat up oil in a wok over a medium-high heat. Briefly fry chilli bean paste and chilli powder, then stir in minced pork, ginger, rice wine and soy sauce. Fry until well combined.
- Pour in hot water. Then add sugar, white pepper and the noodles.
- When most of the water is absorbed by the noodles, add scallions, garlic and fresh chilli (if using). Mix and cook for 30 seconds then serve warm.
If you are interested in making this dish, don’t forget to check out other spicy recipes below which use similar ingredients.
Keep in touch and happy cooking!
Another Sichuan dish using chilli bean paste:
Vermicelli noodles can be cooked this way too: