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.
- 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.
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.”
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.”
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
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.
Xiao Huang Di Gua Qiu
Address: Shi Lin Night Market, Lane 101, Wenlin Road, Shilin District
Address: Tong Hua Night Market at No. 84, Alley 1, Lane 40, Linjiang Street, Da’an District
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.
Yu Pin Yuan
Address: No. 31, Alley 50, Lane 39, Tonghua Street, Da’an District
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.
Address: No. 56, Section 1, Xiyuan Road, Wanhua District
Simon Tian Bu La
Address: No. 46, Section 2, Kaifeng St, Wanhua District
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
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.
Address: No. 1-3, Lane 136, Section 4, Roosevelt Road
Address: Lane 52, Section 4, Luosifu Road, Zhongzheng District