Ants climbing a tree is one of those Chinese dishes for which I have any number of recipes but have never gotten around to making. I finally decided to give it a whirl, using the recipe in Fuchsia Dunlop's Land of Plenty. I was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to make, so a week or so later, I made a variation of it which I liked even better.
The method is simple, one of those methods that can easily be adapted to other ingredients once you've mastered it. Essentially, this dish is a noodle dish: rice noodles garnished with some ground meat and some sauce. That's it. It's the epitome of Asian noodle dishes where the meat is a seasoning, not the main ingredient.
Dunlop's version uses thin bean thread noodles (often labelled as "vermicelli") and ground pork. Soak the noodles in hot water for about 15 minutes while you season a quarter pound of ground pork with some salt and a teaspoon of Shao Xing rice wine. The meat marinates briefly as the noodles soften. Dunlop calls for a quarter pound of the noodles but I just used a prepackaged bundle of them; you can often buy bean thread noodles in bags containing several of these coiled bundles. As a result, my ants (ground meat) were probably undersupplied in the tree (noodle) department, but it seemed to work anyhow.
Drain your noodles and stir-fry the ground meat until it is browned in some peanut oil and a teaspoon of Chinese light soy sauce. Add 1 1/2 tablespoons of hot bean paste and continue to stir-fry until the aroma of the bean paste is evident. Then add 1 2/3 cups of chicken stock and the noodles to the meat and sauce. Add half a teaspoon of Chinese dark soy sauce, season to taste with Chinese light soy sauce and salt, and bring to a boil.
Chicken stock digression: I used homemade Chinese chicken stock for this dish and it added a lot to the end result. I follow Bruce Cost's recipe from Asian Ingredients, which is extremely simple. I like to add a lot of ginger to my chicken stock and I was happy to find that the ginger flavor came through in the completed stir-fry, not overwhelmingly but as a warm undertone. I should also note that I used 2 cups of stock (I freeze my stock in 1 cup amounts, so it was more convenient that way) but since the liquid is cooked down at the end, it doesn't matter.
Once the ingredients are boiling, let simmer until the liquid has been absorbed by the other ingredients. Garnish with scallions and serve. The result is a spicy, intensely-flavored bunch of noodles with bits of ground meat scattered throughout.
When I returned to this recipe for the second time, I decided to change it up a bit. I followed the essential method given above, but I used wider rice noodles rather than bean thread noodles, and I substituted hoisin sauce (Koon Chun Sauce Factory brand) for the hot bean paste. I found that I liked this version even better; the combination of the hoisin sauce and the homemade chicken stock led to a very savory but not overly hot sauce, and the rice noodles sopped up the sauce and became extremely savory themselves.
In the end, it took me too long to get around to making ants climbing a tree, but now it is sure to become one of my go-to recipe models.