What exactly is the 'Q' texture in Taiwanese food?

From sweet to savoury, hot to cold, accessible to adventurous, we explain Taipei's obsession with 'Q' texture and find the best dishes for you to try.

Mochi balls
  • Koh Yuenlin
  • August 2019

Cuisines around the world are typically defined by flavour profiles, but the food of Taiwan — while distinct in flavour too — can almost be defined by a texture. In her cookbook The Food of Taiwan, Taiwanese-American Cathy Erway writes: “Taiwanese eaters are almost as concerned with texture as they are with taste.” And the texture that they like, almost to the point of obsession, is “Q”.

To call it goopy or rubbery would be to misunderstand it. To call it al dente or chewy would be oversimplifying it.

Bubble tea pearls from Chun Shui Tang
Bubble tea pearls from Chun Shui Tang

What, exactly, is this texture Taiwanese call “Q”?

Martyn Wong, the manager for consumer-centric innovation at the Food Innovation & Resource Centre of Singapore Polytechnic breaks it down: “The term ‘Q’ is known as ‘springiness’ in food texture technology. In pure scientific terms, springiness is how well a product physically springs back to its original form after it has been compressed. There isn’t an ‘optimal level’ that is universally favoured — it all depends on the food product you have. For example, the ideal springiness for cooked fish balls is higher than spaghetti.”

Fishball soup in Jiufen
Jiufen is famous for its handmade traditional fishballs.

Yet it takes more than science to explain the Taiwanese infatuation. Taiwanese celebrity chef, restaurateur and veteran food show host James Cheng puts it all down to familiarity. “The term comes from the Minnan (Hokkien-Taiwanese) dialect, and in the cuisine, one finds many dishes made with starch — from chewy sesame-coated dough balls to oyster omelettes and oden. This has always been a unique characteristic of many Taiwanese snacks.”

Rouhe Market
Taipei’s night markets are the perfect starting grounds to acquainting yourself with things “Q”.

Having grown up eating a whole spectrum of Q dishes, they are simply everyday food items to him. Yet, even so, sinking his teeth into a particularly toothsome dish while abroad conjures up memories for Cheng. This perhaps is the reason why this texture is the cornerstone of Taiwanese food: it is an intrinsic part of its people’s collective food memory, a taste of familiarity ... a taste of home.

Intrigued? Well, get ready to embark on a Q quest.

Sweet potato balls

QQ dan or sweet potato balls
These are affectionately known as “QQ-dan” or QQ balls by the locals. Alt text: QQ dan or sweet potato balls

The snack is made from steamed sweet potato that is mashed and mixed with glutinous rice flour or tapioca starch. The dough is then rolled into little balls and deep fried. The result is puffed up balls that are delicately crisp on the outside and mochi-like on the inside.

Top picks:
Xiao Huang Di Gua Qiu
Address: Shi Lin Night Market, Lane 101, Wenlin Road, Shilin District

Nameless store
Address: Tong Hua Night Market at No. 84, Alley 1, Lane 40, Linjiang Street, Da’an District

Tangyuan

Yu Pin Yuan tangyuan
Everything at Yu Pin Yuan is made from scratch — it even mills its own glutinous rice flour for complete control over the final product.

Glutinous rice balls are a common dessert item in Chinese cuisine. For an inventive take on the sweet treat, head to Yu Pin Yuan. Here, the soft, chewy orbs are served on shaved ice, thus the name “Fire and Ice”. A bowl of shaved ice is topped with six tangyuan plump with a molten filling of sesame paste or sugared crushed peanut. It is finished with a drizzle of osmanthus-infused honey and lemon juice.

Top pick:
Yu Pin Yuan
Address: No. 31, Alley 50, Lane 39, Tonghua Street, Da’an District

SEE ALSO: The book lover’s guide to Taipei

Tian bu la
The name tian bu la might sound like “tempura” but it’s actually more like oden.

Tian bu la

The name of this range of fish paste products — think fish cakes and fish paste rolls of slightly different seasoning and texture — very much sounds like “tempura”. However, it is actually more similar to oden in that the deep-fried items are then simmered in a light broth. One of the most popular tian bu la specialists in Taipei is third-generation run Yadong. Its loyal customers return not just for the fish cakes but also the sweet and savoury dipping sauce that is blended in-house. Another hotspot is Simon Tian Bu La — at this institution, the fish cakes are made in-house by hand.

Top picks:
Yadong
Address: No. 56, Section 1, Xiyuan Road, Wanhua District

Simon Tian Bu La
Address: No. 46, Section 2, Kaifeng St, Wanhua District

Bubble tea

Chun Shui Tang
Chun Shui Tang is where bubble tea was invented.

It started when the owner of traditional tea house Chun Shui Tang opens in new window wanted to make his teas more attractive to a younger crowd by shaking milk tea with ice and serving it almost like a milkshake in the 1980s. A staff who loved eating fen yuan (small, chewy tapioca balls usually served in a sweet syrup) added it to the tea — and the ubiquitous beverage was invented. Chun Shui Tang remains a strong contender in a saturated market up to this day, selling an average of 7,500 cups daily.

Pig’s blood pudding

Pig’s blood pudding
Pig’s blood pudding is often eaten with a spicy herbal dip. It is a popular snack that can be easily found in night markets.

A product of frugality that might seem formidably exotic to some, this local delicacy is made from fresh pig’s blood and glutinous rice. The two ingredients are combined and steamed to form a wobblingly soft “cake”. The “cake” is then cut into thick rectangular or triangular slices, coated with peanut powder and fresh chopped coriander leaves.

Top picks:
Xiao Li
Address: No. 1-3, Lane 136, Section 4, Roosevelt Road

Zhen Ji
Address: Lane 52, Section 4, Luosifu Road, Zhongzheng District

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