When you think deliciousness, the first word that comes to mind isn’t usually gumminess—if you’re American, that is. Americans like things that are crispy, like mozzarella sticks and Doritos, and creamy, like ice cream and potato salad. It’s no surprise that Frito-Lay and its salty, crunchy snacks generate more profit for PepsiCo than beverages and cereals combined, but butchers have a hard time selling beef tendons. Chewy and gelatinous foods tend to get far less love in this country, especially in savory preparations.
In Taiwan, though, people love the texture so much that it has its own descriptor. When something is “Q” or even “QQ” (pronounced like the English letters, which don’t have a Chinese equivalent) it means the food has a perfect springy, rubbery texture, revered in Taiwanese cuisine.
That’s because Taiwanese food is as much about texture as taste, says Cathy Erway, author of The Food of Taiwan: Recipes From the Beautiful Island. Part of the enjoyment of a dish stems from the fun of biting down on a dense, spongy fish ball, springy bit of pork tendon, or chewy tapioca pearl. The “mouthfeel” makes nearly as much of a difference in a classic Taiwanese dish like an oyster omelet as does the quality of the bivalve.
Some compare Q to al dente pasta, but spaghetti is not very Q, though gnocchi comes close. To really understand what Q means, you need to eat your way through Taiwanese cooking and experience all its forms, both savory and sweet. Then you, too, will understand why a food’s being “so Q” is a compliment of the highest order.
“A lot of our classic dishes have an element of Q-ness,” says Tina Fong, who runs English-language walking food tours at Taipei Eats. Beef noodle soup is one of those classic dishes: traditionally made with beef shank with bits of cartilage, it can also come with thick, chewy strips of tendon that have been stewed in the rich broth until they’re a burnished brown.
Most restaurants in Taiwan offer a version of the oyster omelet, in which shucked oysters are cooked in a savory egg mixture to form a round, flat pancake often served with a sweet-and-sour sauce. Sweet-potato starch or cornstarch adds an oozy, spongy texture to the eggs.
As the story goes, bubble tea, the milky iced tea with tapioca pearls nestled in the bottom of the glass, was accidentally invented at Chun Shui Tang teahouse in Taichung in 1988. During a business meeting, a product-development manager idly added tapioca balls she’d bought earlier to her iced tea, and the rest was beverage history. Over the years, the shop has expanded to nineteen locations in Taiwan and Japan, and bubble tea has spread throughout the world. But the sticky, chewy quality of tapioca pearls remains very Q—as do the taro and sweet-potato balls that are also very popular in Taiwanese desserts.
Which brings up an interesting point: dessert Q seems more acceptable in the United States than savory Q, as the $3.3 billion chewy candy industry in the United States can attest. Maybe because we’re more willing to accept a fun, gummy texture if it’s associated with children’s food like candy?
Pork with rice
Pork with rice is a popular Taiwanese dish. Whether the meat comes from the pig’s ribs, feet, or belly, it’s braised in sauce until its fat and cartilage have taken on a perfectly gummy texture. But that Q-ness may be disappearing from some forms of the dish, says Erway. “Many home cooks will use butcher-ground pork to make the dish with nowadays, so you might not always get those gelatinous pieces of rendered skin, which soften to ever-so-slightly chewy, clear bits. But if you do, then it’s definitely a highlight.”
The Taiwanese often surround ground beef with a sticky, mochi-like substance to make a super-meatball that is the essence of Q. Meatballs in soups can also be spongy if they’re cooked properly, and there are plenty of resources out there to help Taiwanese cooks achieve the right bounce to their balls. Where the ideal Western meatball is soft and yielding, in Taiwan, the preference is for springy meatballs, sometimes with bits of cartilage suspended throughout.
These are quintessentially Q because the round fish balls, which are made from pulverized fish paste (usually whitefish, squid, or cuttlefish) and reassembled into a springy sphere, rarely add flavor, but bring the necessary texture to any dish. “As a kid, I used to call them ‘rubber balls’ because that was exactly what they looked and felt like in your mouth,” says Erway. “Only they tasted much better.”
The glutinous rice dough is most commonly associated with Japan, but the Taiwanese have long had their own form. In Taiwan, mochi is typically glutinous dough topped with crumbled peanut or sesame—unlike the Japanese variation, which usually finds the dough wrapped around a filling. Today, mochi is so popular in Taiwan that a factory on the western coast of the island has its own museum devoted to the stuff.
Pig and chicken innards are popular in Taiwanese food, whether they’re served in soup, on skewers, or deep-fried (which tastes a little like calamari). Either way, the offal brings that springy Q texture.
Depending on how they’re cooked, Taiwanese noodles can be Q—especially silver needle noodles, which are used in both savory soups and sweet summer desserts like shaved ice.
Savory steamed rice cakes
These springy, bowl-shaped cakes are a popular street snack, made from steamed rice flour and topped with stewed meat, mushrooms, salted egg, or other savory slurries. “Often times, locals wait until the cakes cool down to eat them because the texture is more Q,” says Fong of Taipei Eats.