Ants Climbing a Tree (Mayi Shangshu, 蚂蚁上树)

Another Homestyle Sichuan Dish~~

In the anthology of childhood tastes, 蚂蚁上树 (mǎyǐ shàngshù) was long buried for me beneath louder crowdpleasers like 红烧排骨 (hóngshāo páigǔ) or 红油抄手 (hóngyóu chāoshǒu). “Ants climbing a tree,” its literal translation, are so named for the way finely minced accoutrements cling to the 粉丝 (fěnsī), gelatinous tendrils of mung bean starch noodles imitating tree limbs. Yet mayi shangshu took me years to miss, or even think about. It’s only now that its discreetness amid redder, oilier, spicier stalwarts appeals to me so highly.

This is the home cooking you don’t see on most restaurant menus—someone has to go through the trouble of feeding (which is to say, loving) you personally for mayi shangshu to appear on your radar.

Differentiating glass noodles

Slippery in soups and slightly springy on their own, fensi (above left) are fine threads of mung bean noodle that soak up liquids and flavor very well. In English you’ll commonly find them called bean thread noodles, cellophane noodles, glass noodles and vermicelli. The same starch base is usually used in 凉粉 (liángfěn), strips of chilled mung bean (or pea, or sweet potato) jelly dressed under a chili oil topping.

When purchasing “glass noodles”, survey the packaging ingredients carefully. Lower quality mung bean noodles are often cut with pea starch, pea starch noodles are popular on their own, and sweet potato noodles are known as glass noodles too. They look similar, but sweet potato noodles (粉条, fěntiáo)/红薯粉, hóngshǔ fěn) are thick and chewy, while mung bean fensi are thin and elastic. On restaurant menus and item packaging, you won’t know what type or size “glass noodle” you’re getting unless you ask or read carefully.

Served in a drier dish like mayi shangshu, mung bean noodles retain their springy mouthfeel while chewy sweet potato noodles get a little tacky. Shape, size and texture are crucial elements to the harmony in Chinese dishes, and traditionally you’ll find mung bean and split pea noodles complement the pork mince best in mayi shangshu. These days, however, the chewiness of fentiao is increasingly popular. Taylor has seen this dish served both ways in Chengdu, where sweet potato noodles of all shapes and sizes are beloved.

Feel free to make mayi shangshu with any of these neutral-tasting glass noodles; the overall flavor won’t change. If you use sweet potato noodles, simply add a little sesame oil to counteract the tackiness. Many families fry the soaked noodles in oil to help prevent it from sticking, but I’ve not found this extra step necessary.

When ants climb trees

The most important part of “ants climbing a tree” are the ants—everything that goes into the wok must be finely minced for the dish to work. Otherwise, the ants won’t be able to “climb the tree.” My heart grieves seeing mayi shangshu with big pieces of machine-ground pork that tumble down the sides of the noodles when lifted.

The garlic, ginger and scallions all get minced beforehand, but the pork is traditionally double-minced: once before stir-frying, and again after. This is more important if you use store-bought ground pork, which comes ground together out of the extruding chamber, but not minced into tiny pieces. At home, I often skip the pre-mince for pork (and yacai) these days, but ideally it’s also minced before hitting the sizzling pan so you get more crispiness out of the pork.

If you are mincing your own pork, choose a leaner cut like pork tenderloin.

white plate of bean thread noodles for ants climbing a tree

The same starch base for mung bean noodles can also used for making 凉粉 (liángfěn), strips of chilled mung bean jelly usually dressed with a chili oil topping.

How to cook mayi shangshu

First, soak the noodles in cold water while you prep the other ingredients. If you use hot water, the exterior will overhydrate while the interior remains hard. Next, dry-fry the Yibin suimiyacai until fragrant to remove moisture. Adding oil makes it sticky, so this step must be done before cooking the other ingredients. Depan the yacai and lightly fry the minced pork, adding light soy sauce and 黄酒 (huángjiǔ), yellow rice wine, if available or 料酒 (liàojiǔ) cooking rice wine if not. Depan the meat and mince again finely.

  • Compared to other dishes that use yacai like 担担面 (dàndànmiàn), this may seem like a lot of yacai for one meal. However, you’ll notice there’s not that many other ingredients in this dish. Feel free to make mayi shangshu with whatever finely chopped veggies you desire, but this yacai-forward base combines two of Sichuan’s famous ferments (douban and yacai) for an unassuming dish full of concentrated flavor.

Heat the oil again and add the minced ginger and garlic, stir-frying until fragrant. Add the yacai, then the minced pork and finally the Pixian red-oil doubanjiang. Stir-fry until fragrant, then add the soaked noodles and 1.5 cups of water/stock (or until just covered). Stir well and cover with a lid to simmer 5 minutes on low-medium heat, or until cooked through and tender. Sweet potato noodles require a longer soak (at least 20 minutes), as well as more time and water to cook, so check in and add more water if needed.

Finally, turn off the heat and toss with the minced scallion plus a touch of sesame oil, if using sweet potato noodles. Plate the mayi shangshu with a bit of reserved scallion tips and ground huajiao to top. Serve immediately or keep warm until ready to eat.

For more Cooking with Pixian Doubanjiang dishes, see my other recipes for Second Sister Rabbit Cubes (Erjie Tuding, 二姐兔丁) and Braised Chestnut + Shiitake Chicken (Banli Shaoji, 板栗烧鸡).

Ants Climbing a Tree (Mayi Shangshu, 蚂蚁上树)

Kathy Yuan | The Mala Market | Inspiration & Ingredients for Sichuan Cooking

Ingredients

  • 2 bunches dry mung bean thread noodle 90 grams (or ~200g sweet potato noodle)
  • 1 bunch scallions, washed and finely minced, divided
  • 1 thumb fresh ginger, washed and finely minced 15 grams
  • 5 large cloves fresh garlic, peeled and finely minced 30 grams
  • ½ cup Yibin suimiyacai 65 grams
  • 2 tablespoons caiziyou (Chinese roasted rapeseed oil), divided
  • 3 ounces fresh ground pork 90 grams
  • ½ tablespoon Chinese light soy sauce (Zhongba preferred)
  • splash huangjiu/liaojiu (yellow rice wine/cooking rice wine) approx. 1 tablespoon
  • 1 tablespoon Pixian hongyou doubanjiang (spicy red-oil broad bean paste)
  • cups water or stock more or less as needed
  • ground huajiao (Sichuan pepper) (see note) more or less to taste
  • drizzle toasted sesame oil optional, recommended if subbing sweet potato noodle

Instructions

Prep

  • Soak the bean thread noodles for 20-30 minutes in a medium bowl with enough water to totally submerge the noodles. Trim in half with kitchen shears, wash, drain and set aside. (If using sweet potato noodles, soak in warm water at least 30 minutes or until pliable.)
  • Mince the scallion, ginger, garlic and yacai. Reserve some of the green scallion tips for garnishing and set aside.

Cook

  • In a wide wok or skillet, dry-sear the yacai over low-medium heat until fragrant. Depan and set aside.
  • Add 1 tablespoon of the caiziyou over medium-high heat until smoking. Fry the ground pork, breaking up pieces into small bits. Add the ½ tablespoon of soy sauce and splash of rice wine. Stirfry until most of the liquid has reduced, then depan cooked pork onto a cutting board and mince finely again.
  • Add the remaining tablespoon of caiziyou to the wok or skillet and heat until smoking. Add ginger, then garlic, and fry briefly until fragrant, then add back the yacai and toss to combine.
    Return the minced pork to the pan and add 1 tablespoon of doubanjiang while stir-frying until fragrant. Add the trimmed and drained noodles and 1½ cups of water (or stock) until the noodles are just covered by the liquid. Mix well and bring to a boil, then cover with a lid and simmer 5 minutes on low-medium heat or until noodles are cooked through and tender. (Sweet potato noodles will take at least 7-10 minutes.) Don't let the noodles cook dry, so if you need to add more water after 5 minutes do so.
  • Once noodles are done to your liking, simmer uncovered to reduce any remaining pooled liquid. I like to leave a little thickened sauciness. Finally, turn off the heat and add minced scallion, huajiao and a drizzle of sesame oil (optional, recommended if subbing sweet potato noodle), tossing well to combine.
    Depan into a serving bowl or plate and garnish with the reserved scallion tips and extra huajiao to taste. Serve immediately or keep warm until ready to eat.

Notes

GROUND HUAJIAO (Sichuan pepper):
Toast whole huajiao in a dry skillet until pods start to smell very fragrant, but do not brown them. Let peppercorns cool, then grind in a spice grinder or in a mortar + pestle to your desired coarseness. Sichuan pepper powder will retain its potent flavor and numbing punch for only a few weeks.
 
  • You may snip the soaked noodles in half with a pair of scissors for ease of serving later, if you wish.

Kathy Yuan

Kathy is a first-gen, twenty-something daughter of two Sichuan immigrants who cooked her way back to her parents’ kitchen during the pandemic and is now helping Ma (you can call her Mala Mama) keep generational family recipes alive. All photos shot and edited by her.

4 Responses

  1. Suzan says:

    If you’re going to feature a recipe (e.g. Ants Climbing a Tree), it would help if you carried all of the Oriental ingredients needed to make it. Not everyone wants or is able to go searching all over Amazon to find what is needed.

    • Kathy Yuan says:

      Hi, Suzan, thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts! If you came here from our newsletter, you’ll know we’ve just expanded into a new warehouse so we can do just that. We’re very privileged to be able to carry these premium Chinese ingredients since our origins as a Chinese cooking blog. In the meantime, you’ll find everything you need to make this recipe with the sweet potato noodles available for purchase on themalamarket.com, except the rice cooking wine—a small quantity of which is used to rid the smelliness of raw meat, not for flavor 🙂 So feel free, as noted, to use any cooking rice wine. Your local Western supermarket’s “international” aisle likely carries Japanese mirin, which saves you from having to order with Amazon. Looking forward to sharing many more exciting Chinese recipes and products in the future!

  2. James Elkins says:

    This was such a revelation. I cooked from Mrs. Chiang’s cookbook, then from Fuschia Dunlop’s, and the Sichuan Culinary Institute (and others) and this was the first time I’ve been asked to dry-fry the yacai (makes an enormous difference!) and re-mince the pork (brilliant idea). The dish is perfect.
    I wonder about regional differences. Any information to add along those lines? Places where people use pepper? Or more huajiao?

    • Kathy Yuan says:

      Hi James, thanks for reading and sharing your experience, it really made my day. I haven’t tried those recipes, I’m glad you were able to learn something useful to level up your mayi shangshu game!

      I can’t comment much on regional differences, but there’s usually no shortage of good reasons why traditional dishes survive in a given format. My personal speculation here: Oil is the most impressive carrier for huajiao’s tingly ma quality, so a drier dish like this wouldn’t showcase huajiao as well as other stir-fries and stews. Thus, not very huajiao-forward by nature. And as it would no doubt be served alongside other redder dishes in Sichuan, this neutral savory palate better balances all the other spicier and oilier and wetter dishes around. Thus, not very chili-forward either. This is how I’ve experienced and grown to appreciate it in restaurants and home cooking in Sichuan, anyhow. At home, of course, household differences come down to what’s available and individual preference, so cook it however you please 🙂

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