What do boba pearls, tteokbokki and tripe all have in common? An odd amalgam of very different flavors and origins, but they share the same defining textural quality — that rubbery, jaw-working bounce — of Q. This is the “sixth” taste that’s a huge part of the appeal and popularity of these culture-defining dishes. After all, bubble tea is nothing without the pearls and rice cakes are all about the firm bite and chewy texture. So, what is Q, and how did it become central to the Asian culinary experience?
Taiwan: The Origin of Q
The word Q or QQ originated as Taiwanese slang, as the pronunciation of Q (as in “queue”) sounds similar to the Taiwanese Hokkien word “k’iu,” or “chewy.” It’s a distinctly Taiwanese thing, to refer to the chewy texture as Q. There’s no formal Chinese character for Q; most restaurant menus and food stalls simply tack on the English letter to replicate the sound. And if you’ve ever been to night markets and street food hawkers in Taiwan, (or, for those of us stuck inside, you can watch this video), you’ll see vendors listing Q or QQ on their signs, selling everything from meat skewers to noodles to shaved ice.
In Korea, Q is also known as “jjolgit jjolgit” (“chewy chewy”), which makes up part of the name of the famous cold jjolmyeon noodles and what makes spicy-savory tteokbokki so delicious. In Vietnam, “dai” is the word on the street for aromatic beef balls swimming in bowls of pho, deep-fried balls of sweet mung bean bliss (banh cam) and sticky rice cakes topped with shredded pork and crispy shallots (banh beo). Other Asian cuisines, especially Chinese and Japanese — think dumpling skins and udon — also devote fare to this singular texture, although there isn’t a designated name for it as in other cultures.
But Q is hard to define in terms of words on paper, slipping from synonyms like “rubbery” or “gummy” with the same ease of udon from inexpertly wielded chopsticks. The best way to interpret QQ would be through the very foods that it describes: savory fish balls, grilled octopus, soy-marinated jellyfish and other spongy delights of the sea; rice cakes, noodles, dumplings and other doughy deliciousness; and finally, the bouncy, springy tapioca pearls that add not just flavor to milk tea but a bite to what would ordinarily be a sip.
Q Is Central to the Dining Experience
Q is beloved for not just adding new textures to each dish, but for maximizing the flavor of the ingredients present. Food just tastes better with Q. Whether it’s umami, sweet, tart or floral, Q is the perfect vehicle to absorb pungent sauces and release them with every bursting bite.
“Chewy food, if it’s cooked right, has a lot of flavor every time you take a bite,” explained Japanese chef Tatsu Aikawa in an article with Bon Appetit. “It’s another element of taste.”
From lychee jellies that slide down in one swallow to beef tendons that require serious devotion to break down, Q is more than just a single facet of taste and texture. While salty is simply salty, and crispy is, well, crispy, with Q, the experiences can be as wide as the diversity of foods it’s present in.
Thus, the intense power of QQ has allowed it to evolve beyond its esculent origins and into a national love.
Q Is a National Obsession
In her book “The Food of Taiwan: Recipes from the Beautiful Island,” author Cathy Erway defines Q as crucial to aspects of Taiwanese cuisine. “To say that a food is ‘Q’ is certainly a compliment,” she writes. “Taiwanese eaters are almost as concerned with texture as they are with taste. Hence we find examples of rather tasteless elements in dishes that only add textural appeal.”
Laura Russell, a contributor for Roads and Kingdoms, furthers this conception of Q as a national predilection: “Sinewy Q from beef tendon, tender Q from the fish balls, chewy Q from the bawan, and bouncy Q from the tang yuan, Q is not just an obsession with texture over taste, but more of a national comfort food, a mouth feel that finds its way into nearly any meal.”
Steven Crook and Katy Hui-wen Hung discuss the enthusiasm for Q in their book “A Culinary History of Taipei: Beyond Pork and Ponlai.” They note that a love for the flavor profile is the reason why “real” connoisseurs would always choose the gelatinous tendon version for Taiwan’s famous beef noodle soup and explains the enduring popularity of bubble tea and the fish balls and rice cakes that bubble in vats of broth at every 7-Eleven.
A Long History of Desiring Q
Although applying the Q nomenclature to food is a more recent development for advertising purposes — less than 15 years ago, according to Crook and Hung — there’s a long history of desiring chewiness in Asian cuisines.
For instance, when Chinese immigrants came to Taiwan in the 16th century, they brought with them a long-grain indica species of rice native to South and Southeast Asia that possessed the prized chewy texture. The origin of the “bounciness” and flavor of ramen noodles comes from the discovery of “kansui,” or lye water, thousands of years ago, which increases water absorption and strengthens the wheat proteins, giving rise to the toothsome bite that is QQ.
Fish balls, a popular dish since the Qing dynasty and a staple of Hong Kong cuisine, are kneaded and slapped against a cutting board in order to develop the “stickiness” and firm bite reminiscent of a rubber ball. Jellyfish, which have been eaten for at least 1,700 years in China and Japan, literally have no taste; they’re eaten for their crunchy-springy texture, served cold as a salad, layered with daikon and splashed with soy sauce. Even the Greeks and Romans enjoyed jellyfish. Aristotle, in his book “History of Animals” (fourth century B.C.), recommended jellyfish caught in the winter for their firmer texture.
The Question of Q Today
For modern Western audiences, however, the experience with Q is not one of appreciation. Chewy, gummy food is relegated to the literal back-burner in Western fine dining. Westerners don’t seek it out — for them, chewiness is synonymous with rubbery, gristly, leathery or tough. Terms that describe Q are frequently used by Western food critics in reference to negative dining experiences, like too-tough steak, shoe-leather chicken and food that is either undercooked or overcooked.
British food writer Stefan Gates once described the texture of jellies as “something between cartilage and rubber” — not a texture that’s particularly common nor appetizing in the Western diet. Or maybe, growing up, the experience of Q was infantile, like gummy worms and marshmallows — hardly the echelon of culinary artistry and sought-after affairs (or even food in a more basic sense). The most appealing likening to Q in the Western vocabulary is probably when it comes to pasta, as seen with this New York Times article relating Q to “al dente.”
Q, then, is slow to break into the Western consciousness. The popularity of bubble tea in the U.S., a market valued at $2.4 billion in 2019, is a good starting point. From there, it’s just a short leap to more adventurous foods. Try shaved ice (bingsu in Korean, or baobing in Mandarin), for a true Q dessert feast. A finely slivered mountain of snow (not the hard, ice-like grains in American snow cones) comes covered in a panoply of Q foods. Small caramel puddings, silken white tofu, obsidian-colored grass jelly, an abundance of fruit and orange sweet potato and purple taro balls are covered in a light drizzle of sweet, condensed milk syrup. The different shapes, sizes, colors and flavors add to the visual variety and gustatory delight.
But, as I’m sure you know this far into the article, Q is much more than just tapioca pearls and dessert. There is so much range to this flavor profile: from soft limp chewiness (jellies, mochi and dumpling skins) to mid-tier suppleness (glutinous rice cakes and fresh squid) to the jaw-aching, tug-of-war gnawing (jerky, tripe and cartilage). There are so many applications for it: from breakfast, to snacks, to lunch, dinner and dessert.
Q itself is a challenge. A challenge to the chef, to the ingenuity of playing up the natural texture instead of beating the bounce out of it, and a challenge to you, as the consumer, to physically and metaphorically figure out what makes this dish so delicious.
If nothing else, Q is just fun to eat. So be daring — even though the world around us is still closed, there’s a whole new world of flavors and tastes to be discovered with Q.