Today's dish is one of the ones I mentioned in Monday's post on dishes with flowery/poetic names — 螞蟻上樹 (mǎ yǐ shàng shù), which translates literally as "ants climbing a tree". I've seen it actually listed under this name in English translations on menus, though more often they go for the less-exciting option of "minced pork with vermicelli" or something along those lines. The vermicelli represents the tree, and the specks of minced pork are the ants.
螞蟻 (mǎ yǐ) means "ant", and I think I can feel fairly confident in stating that 螞蟻上樹 is the only context in which you're likely to see it used on a menu.
上 (shàng) is the "climbing" part; it has a number of related meanings such as "above", "superior", "previous", and "summit". Aside from its use in 螞蟻上樹, I've mostly seen it as 上湯 (shàng tāng), literally "superior soup", which is often translated as "consomme" or "rich broth" and is used in dishes such as 上湯豆苗 (shàng tāng dòu miáo). As mentioned in my post on 豆/dòu, 豆苗 are pea shoots/mangetout leaves, so 上湯豆苗 is essentially mangetout leaves moistened with a tasty stock/broth (photo).
樹 means "tree" or "plant". It's not a particularly common character on menus, but it does appear in the form of 茶樹菇 (chá shù gū), or tea tree mushrooms (also known as willow mushrooms or Agrocybe aegerita). (
If anyone knows where to buy these in London, dried or fresh, I would be very interested. Update, July 2010: Found the dried version on the first floor of New Loon Moon in Chinatown. Still looking for fresh ones — they may be seasonal.)
螞蟻上樹 is a Sichuan dish, and unsurprisingly it's intensely-flavoured and quite spicy. It's made with 粉絲 (fěn sī), which are normally translated as "bean thread noodles", "glass noodles", or the rather non-specific "vermicelli". 粉絲 are thin, resilient noodles made from mung bean flour. They come dried (I've never seen them on sale fresh) in packages of various sizes — this is important to note, since unlike rice or wheat noodles they're very hard to cut or break in their dried form, so it's worth looking out for them packaged in sizes that you're likely to want to use. I often use them for a single serving in a quick salad or whatever, so I find the multipacks of individual 50g packages are very useful. Lóngkǒu (龍口) brand is a good one, if you can find it. (Londoners: Loon Fung in Silvertown has 龍口粉絲 in various package sizes.)
Sunflower Food Galore, a blog I've mentioned before, has a recipe for 螞蟻上樹 which I've made a few times. It includes celery, which I haven't seen in other recipes; the Angie's Recipes version omits the celery and marinates the pork mince before cooking it. Neither of these recipes includes Sichuan pepper (花椒), but the version pictured above, which I ate at Chilli Cool in Bloomsbury, definitely had a flavour of 花椒, so I'm not sure if it should traditionally be included or not. The dish is tasty either way.
Update, October 2010: Although I was previously of the opinion that this dish isn't worth it without the meat, I recently tried making it with very finely-chopped courgette (zucchini) instead of the pork mince, cooking the courgette just enough to soften it slightly but not go mushy. It worked pretty well, so I'm now happy to make this even when I don't have pork mince on hand.
Recipes linked in this post: