This much loved dish is a deeply flavored, spicy mélange of silky glass noodles with little umami bursts of well-seasoned ground pork.
I love the way Chinese cooks name so many of their dishes. Such romantic, poetic, seductive, sometimes humorous, and completely memorable names.
Who can resist Ants Climbing a Tree for instance? In an Asian restaurant, it practically screams ORDER ME. And yes, I almost always do.
Here’s the charming story behind the creation of this traditional Szechuan dish.
Unfortunately, not all versions of this much loved dish are created equal. What should be an deeply flavored, spicy mélange of silky glass noodles (also known as cellophane or mung bean noodles) with little umami bursts of well-seasoned ground pork is too often a wet, gloppy mess of indistinguishable components. We don’t want that, now do we?
So when I began the research for this post and did an initial web search for representative examples of Ants Climbing a Tree, I was aghast at photo after photo of shimmering piles of gelatinous goop.
But then, after much scrolling, I encountered this one. Look at those succulent, burnished, glistening stands of separate noodles. Makes you want to jump right into the bowl and start eating.
It happens to be a shot from Charles Phan’s Heaven’s Dog restaurant in San Francisco (now closed unfortunately). Chef Phan’s version swapped black trumpet mushrooms and leeks for the more usual ground pork.
These days, he does another inventive take on this traditional dish with a menu item titled Cellophane Noodles, Green Onion, Dungeness Crab, Sesame, served at his acclaimed Slanted Door restaurant. You can get the recipe here.
But before I start wildly riffing a classic dish, I like to master the original. So what I present here is my fairly traditional version of this dish, with a bit more spice and a hint of orange.
The most important aspect of this delicious dish is the noodles. The “ants” play a secondary, supporting role.
So as Chef Charles Phan of The Slanted Door so effectively demonstrates in his mushroom and crab versions, it’s fine to take liberties with the traditional ground pork aspect of this dish. After you have the basic noodles down, feel free to get creative. (But hey, you should always feel free to get creative, right?)
Technique Note To avoid a gloppy, slimy mess of a dish, don’t over soak the cellophane noodles. For rubber-band firm noodles, submerge in very hot water for 3-5 minutes, depending on country of origin and thickness of noodles. Drain noodles while they are still rubber-band firm and just translucent. They will finish cooking in the wok.
Noodles produced in The Peoples Republic of China (rather than Taiwan or Thailand) tend to require hotter water and longer soaking time.
Ingredient Note A trip to your local Asian market will yield a treasure trove of bean thread noodle options. Most of those I find in Portland, Oregon and its suburbs (at H Mart, Fubonn, Uwajimaya) are made in Thailand (Dragonfly, Kaset, L&W) or China (Double Pagoda, Hsin Chuan, Zhen Zhu). I’m always looking for bean threads that are a little fatter than usual. They hold their shape better and just look prettier. Dragonfly and L&W fit that profile. Hsin Chuan on the other hand produces the only broad bean threads that I have found.
Depending on the quality and thickness of your cellophane noodles, you will soak them for a shorter or longer time. Forget about the prescribed minutes in the recipe and use your senses instead. Soaking time varies considerably from brand to brand.
Rice noodles intended for stir-fry should be pliable but still firm, like rubber bands, after soaking. They will be somewhat translucent, but not completely. Noodles that will receive no further cooking should be fully tender, but not mushy, and completely transparent after soaking.
Testing Note On my first run-through for this dish, it had way too many “ants.” The ants were running amok, so to speak. So although most recipes I encountered in researching this dish call for considerably more ground pork, I think this small amount creates the perfect balance. See what you think.
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine (Shao Xing) or dry sherry
1 small clove garlic, skinned, and minced or pressed
½ teaspoon cornstarch
¼ pound ground pork or turkey thigh (I tested both and liked both)
6 ounces dried mung bean noodles (also called cellophane noodles, glass noodles, and bean thread noodles)
1 tablespoon skinned, minced or pressed garlic
1 tablespoon peeled, minced fresh ginger
1 tablespoon Korean chile paste
fine shreds of orange peel, from 1 medium orange
¼ cup chicken stock, plus more if needed
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon brown sugar
⅛ teaspoon Chinese 10-Spice (or Chinese 5-Spice)
2-3 tablespoons cooking oil (canola, corn, or peanut)
freshly squeezed lime juice, to taste
¼ cup thinly sliced green onions
lightly salted roasted peanuts, chopped
- To prepare meat, in a medium mixing bowl, whisk together soy sauce, rice wine, chile paste, garlic, and cornstarch.
- Add ground meat, and stir to combine. Cover and marinate for at least 1 hour, or refrigerate overnight.
- To prepare cellophane noodles, put noodles into a large mixing bowl, and cover with boiling water. Soak for 5-15 minutes, until noodles are translucent and pliable.
- Cut noodles into 6- to 8-inch lengths. Refresh with cold water, and let drain for about an hour, until noodles are nearly dry to the touch but still flexible. Reserve. (At this point, noodles can be covered and refrigerated overnight.)
- To prepare aromatics, in a small bowl combine garlic, ginger, garlic paste, and orange peel.
- To prepare sauce, in a small mixing bowl, whisk together chicken stock, soy sauce, dark soy sauce, rice vinegar, fish sauce, brown sugar, and Chinese 10-Spice. Reserve.
- Arrange marinated meat, prepared noodles, aromatics, sauce, and lime juice next to the stovetop, along with a wooden spatula and serving platter. Cooking proceeds very rapidly after this point.
- To stir-fry, heat a heavy, flat-bottomed wok or large sauté pan over high heat until a drop of water evaporates on contact.
- Add oil, and continue heating until oil is shimmering.
- Add aromatics, and stir-fry for about 1 minute.
- Add meat mixture, and quickly toss and separate with a wooden spatula to break it into small bits. Stir-fry until meat is almost cooked through, about 2 minutes, tossing and turning the entire time.
- Stir the sauce, add to the wok, and bring to a simmer.
- Add prepared cellophane noodles, toss, cover, and simmer gently until liquid is absorbed, about 2 minutes.
- To serve, turn out onto a large serving platter, scatter green onions over the top, and garnish with lime wedges and peanuts. Serve immediately.
More Asian Inspired Recipes from LunaCafe
- All Asia All Month 2015
- Almost Luc Lac Vietnamese Dipping Sauce
- Asian Pancakes (Beijing Pancakes)
- Asian Pantry: Korean Red Pepper Powder & Threads
- Asian Potsticker Dough (for Jiaozi & Gyoza Dumplings)
- Asian Snack Crackers & Other Extraordinary Munchies
- Asian Tacos with Prawn & Shiitake Filling & Cabbage Slaw
- Chinese Cracker Jacks
- Chinese Good Fortune Cookies
- Eat. Portland. Sen Yai Noodles.
- General Tso’s Chicken: Crispy, Spicy, Sweet & Tart
- Golden Fried Garlic Sesame Noodles
- Home-Style Chinese Fried Rice
- Phat Thai (Stir-Fried Rice Noodles with Tamarind Sauce, Peanuts & Lime)
- Pok Pok’s World Famous Vietnamese Chicken Wings
- Pork & Prawn Potstickers (aka Asian Dumplings)
- Portland Food Carts: Mama Chow’s Kitchen
- Spicy Asian Cucumber Salad
- Spicy Korean Noodle Soup (Jjambbong)
- Spicy Pork Wonton Soup
- Spicy Vietnamese Dipping Sauce (Nuoc Cham)
- Thai Red Curry Paste
- Thai Red Curry Soup
- Vietnamese Chicken Salad
- Vietnamese Crispy Crepes (Banh Xeo)
Cookin’ with Gas (inspiration from around the web)
- A Heavenly Time at Heaven’s Dog | Foodgal
- Ants Climbing a Tree | Wikipedia
- Ma Yi Shang Shu (Ants Climbing a Tree) | Saveur
- The Chef: Charles Phan; A Tangled Web He Weaves with the Vietnamese Noodle | Mark Bittman | The New York Times
- Secret Recipe: The Slanted Door's Dungeness Crab With Cellophane Noodles | 7 by 7