Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Ants climbing a tree (ma yi shang shu)

We tend to have a binary relationship with meat. Those with humane or environmental objections to meat typically don't eat it at all. The rest of us gorge it at every meal. I thought of this strange dynamic a few weeks ago when a girl in my cooking class, a former vegetarian, confessed the secret to her butternut squash soup - sausage. It killed her vegetarian sensibilities to add it, she said, but it was the ingredient that made the soup's flavors sing. To me, it seemed she should have been praising the sausage trick. A small amount of meat, crumbled into a large pot of soup, would go a long way in imparting savory flavor to a predominantly vegetable-based meal.

There are a lot of compelling reasons to be vegetarian. Agribusiness is awful to animals and the earth. I think factory farming is a moral crime. But I cannot give up meat. I love the way meat tastes. It's prominent in just about every culinary tradition, and I value the access it gives me to other cultures and foodways. Like me, most other people are not ready to give up meat. And they get defensive or dismissive when you bring up the ethical arguments. But all of us could eat less of it without feeling that much sacrifice, and it's hard to argue against the health benefits of eating less meat. If four people decreased their consumption by 25%, wouldn't that have much the same impact as converting one full-fledged PETA vegetarian? (Mark Bittman has done a ton to promote this concept.)

Many of the Chinese dishes I've been cooking - dan dan noodles, fish-fragrant aubergines and dry-fried beans among them - make judicious use of meat as a flavoring agent. Meat doesn't play center stage in any of these dishes, but a small sprinkling of ground pork or a splash of rich chicken stock dramatically enhance their deliciousness. A one-pound package of pork can last us four meals or more these days. Obviously, this cooking strategy was really useful when money was tight and meat hard to come by, but I think it's just as relevant in modern times.

One such dish is what Fuchsia Dunlop's Sichuanese cookbook charmingly calls Ants Climbing a Tree. If you dangle a few strands of these noodles from your chopsticks, Dunlop explains, tiny morsels of meat will cling to them, apparently like ants climbing a tree. This dish uses glass noodles, easily found in any Asian market and sometimes labeled "mung bean thread" or "bean vermicelli." In case you're wondering, light Chinese soy sauce is predominantly used for seasoning, while dark soy sauce is less salty and added for color.

1. Soak 1/4 lb. glass noodles in hot water for 15 minutes. Add a splash of Shaoxing rice wine and a couple pinches of salt to 1/4 lb. ground pork or beef and mix well.

2. Heat your wok over a high flame, add 1 T. peanut oil and stir-fry the ground meat with a splash of light soy sauce until lightly browned and crispy. Add 1 1/2 T. chilli bean paste and stir-fry until the oil is red and fragrant. Add 1 2/3 cups chicken stock and the drained noodles and stir well. Tip in 1/2 tsp. dark soy sauce for color, and season with light soy sauce to taste.

3. When the stock has come to a boil, simmer over a medium flame for 10 minutes until the liquid has mostly evaporated and been absorbed. Add 3 finely sliced scallions, mix well, and serve. Feeds 2.

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