Why Chinese Pharmacies Still Sell Ants

It turns out that, compared to $3000 snake penises, ants are a real bargain at just $30 a kilo.

But who in their right minds would eat ants? Maybe the happiest emperor in the history of China, Emperor Qianlong? He died just before the 19th century began, at the pretty insane age of 89, and blamed his good looks and eternal youthfulness entirely on his diet of ants.

This was the best photo I could get of ants… Someone bought these from the local pharmacy.

He was inspired by Li Shizhen’s “Compendium of Materia Medica,” which was then already 200 years old, but was still the most popular medical book in China. (It remained the most popular until 1959!) In it, Doctor Li wrote that black ants “enrich the qi, beautify skin, delay ageing and restore kidney energy.”

The emperor’s favorite recipe is still an all-time Chinese classic: ants fried with pine nuts. I’ve never seen it on a menu, but I’m still looking — it’s supposed to be the best way to ingest them. If you want to make it at home, deep fry 50g of black ants in vegetable oil until they become crisp, then do the same with 300g of pine nuts. Now toss them in a pan with 20g of vegetable oil, and stir it all together. Add some salt and sugar, and dig in!

Before you go out and buy ants, though, be warned that the bigger they are, the more expensive they’ll be. Plus, as with anything, organic (aka wild) ants cost more than farmed ones. (Do they have ants at the Park Slope co-op?) The most expensive, though, is the legendary mountain-dwelling Wild Black Ant, which costs a whopping $45 a kilo. (Okay, that’s only 50% more than the common black ant, but… well… maybe that’s a lot in the ant world.)

To catch this beast, there’s a world of professional hunters who spread ground-up bones on plastic sheets, which they then sprinkle with vinegar. They wait (presumably in hiding, I picture them dressed as giant ants) for half an hour, maybe an hour, after which a line of huge ants will start to appear. The show ends when these merciless ant assassins snatch them up, drop them in a bucket of water, and drown them. After a few days in the sun, they’re ready to be eaten.

Li Yanjun isn’t a hunter — he’s a farmer — but he’s farmed and sold ants for a decade. He talks like an entomologist businessman. “Ants are nutritional, medical and healthy,” he says. “They’re also one of the most valuable insects in China. The ant business has exploded in recent years. People realize that it’s a good medicine. Looks disgusting, but it tastes nice if you cook it in the right way.”

Which is, presumably, deep fried with pine nuts.

You can also soak your ants in liquor, like a snake. After a week, the ant-guotou cocktail will be drinkable, but the longer you wait, the better. Drink 40ml a day for arthritis, or perhaps as an aphrodisiac.

A pre-bottled version of this recipe, Yilishen Tonic Wine, was a huge seller across China a few years ago. It advertised itself as a natural Viagra, with the awesome tag line: “Those who use are those who know” (谁用谁知道!). Sadly, the company has since disappeared.

We found one guy who admitted to drinking a homemade ant cocktail, a Mr. Yan, but he wasn’t too supportive of it at all. “I didn’t see any effects,” he said. “Plus, it was disgusting.”

Granny Chen, meanwhile, eats ants for the same reason that Emperor Qianlong did: youthfulness. “Your hair will go from grey to black,” she insists, telling a long rambling story about a friend who ate crushed ant powder for three years.

Cutting to the chase (and unlike Emperor Qianlong, presumably), Granny Chen uses her microwave to heat her dried ants, and she then blends them in a food processor. Two spoons a day, and she’s still waiting for her hair to turn black… but she has high hopes. Her only complaint? “It tastes horrible, and smells like urine. It’s disgusting, really.”

Much of this blog post is directly lifted from an article I wrote a few months ago, with research by me and my friend Chloe Chen, and published in my magazine, “The World of Chinese.”  You should buy the magazine–subscribe to it, in fact!  It’s quite awesome.

Extraordinary Eats, Strange Medicine /

One Response to Why Chinese Pharmacies Still Sell Ants

  1. david says:

    Some ants climbed into my kalua (left an open pouring spout in) and have been there for six months or so… Ran it through a tea strainer and it tastes pretty good still… Looking forward to my blonde hair going black !

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