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Taiwan's Q Texture Deserves a Place at Your Table

Why we love chewy foods comes down to the letter, “Q.”

<p>Heami Lee / Food Styling by Margaret Monroe Dickey / Prop Styling by Christine Keely</p>

Heami Lee / Food Styling by Margaret Monroe Dickey / Prop Styling by Christine Keely

A pot of light broth, scented with five-spice powder and bobbing with meatballs and fish balls, is a classic comfort food from my childhood. Scoop a few morsels into a bowl along with the broth, and it’s a perfect snack for both kids and adults. In Taiwan, you can find this in home kitchens, night markets, or slow cookers in a 7-Eleven convenience store. Texture plays a big role in its enjoyment; when you slurp the extra-bouncy fish balls, your jaw will be treated to several seconds of delightfully absorbing work.

Bouncy. Springy. Slippery. Chewy. Gummy. These are coveted sensations in the cuisine of Taiwan, described by the letter “Q.” The term is derived from the Taiwanese Hokkien word khiu or k’iu, but these days, the Roman letter Q is how you’ll see this word printed in Taiwan. If a food is especially Q, you could call it QQ. Boba might be Q’s most well-known avatar, with those glistening tapioca pearls at the bottom of a cup of milky sweetened tea that continue to bounce around in your mouth long after you’ve taken a sip.

When I wrote the cookbook The Food of Taiwan in 2015, I felt that people just learning about Taiwanese food could better appreciate many dishes if they understood the role that Q played in them. I decided to call out Q specifically in an essay, to underline why there were many elements in recipes that contributed this texture, like the cornstarch slurry or sweet potato starch that pan-fries to a clear gel in the Taiwanese oyster omelet, o ah jian, or tian bu la, a type of fish cake that’s often skewered and drizzled with a sweet-and-sour sauce.

Related: A Brief History of Boba

How was it possible, I later wondered, that these distinct textures could be so satisfying to an entire society of 23 million people yet be virtually unrecognizable to American palates? Recently, I set off to see whether this was really the case or just a big misunderstanding. It didn’t take me long to realize that there are Q textures all over America’s favorite foods — in the assertive chew of an al dente pasta or the delicate snap of lightly cooked calamari — though here it is not identified with its own word.

To understand how to create and savor Q, I encourage home cooks to look for dishes and ingredients that have an established foothold in the United States, with textures that could border on Q, and crank up the Q quotient. Instead of a pasta dish — say, a buttery orecchiette with Italian sausage — what if we were to stir-fry some soft, chewy rice cakes instead, or what if we even baked those rice cakes and Italian sausage into a crispy lasagna? There are many collagen-rich cuts of meat that are enjoyed throughout the world, but braised beef shanks are a classic Taiwanese dish for good reason. In red-wine-braised beef shanks, the swirling tendons in the leg cook to a clear gel that enriches the broth, makes your lips sticky, and contrasts beautifully with the tender meat. Or try a more traditional representation of this cartilage-rich protein with Taiwanese beef noodle soup.

Naturally bouncy calamari provide the perfect bounce of Q in Bobby Flay’s squid ink fettuccine. Fresh beech mushrooms are another shortcut to Q: I quickly sauté them before marinating them in a refreshing mixture of rice vinegar, garlic, chiles, and cilantro for Beech Mushroom Salad, a chilled appetizer with a toothsome bite.

Related: How Today's Taiwanese-American Chefs Rewrote the Rules and Made a New Cuisine

Finally, mochi rice cakes, made with glutinous rice flour for a chewy, stretchy consistency, are at the heart of a classic Q dessert. Vivian Ku, chef-owner of Taiwanese restaurants Pine & Crane and Joy in Los Angeles, provided her recipe for traditional Hakka-style mochi: warm, soft mochi cakes dusted in peanut and black sesame powders, which I have adapted for the home kitchen.

All together, these dishes can make for a beautiful multicourse meal — one that features various aspects and degrees of Q. Savor the Q and QQ of them all.

The QQ pantry

Lean on these Taiwanese pantry go-tos to easily accentuate Q in your home kitchen and cook up texturally rewarding meals any day of the week.

Wood ear mushrooms

These are a Q lover’s dream come true. They’re a common type of mushroom found around the world, and in Taiwan, they’re popular as a cold appetizer, marinated with bright vinegar and sesame oil. These mushrooms have virtually no flavor but are prized for their slippery, jellylike texture and ability to absorb whatever flavors they’re dressed with. Beech mushrooms can be found at most Asian or specialty grocery stores as well as online at dartagnan.com.

Related: 7 Mushrooms That Go Beyond the Button

Glutinous rice flour

Essential to making many types of mochi and the Chinese dumplings called tangyuan, this flour is made of glutinous rice (also known as sweet rice, although it is unsweetened) that has been ground to a fine powder. Look for Erawan brand flour, which is widely available in Asian grocery stores and online at amazon.com.

Cornstarch

Cornstarch helps thicken soups and sauces while adding a silky mouthfeel and acts as a tender, chewy breading for deep-fried foods. Combined with glutinous rice flour, it’s also key to achieving a soft, elastic texture in desserts.

Rice cakes

Chinese rice cakes, or nian gao, are made of glutinous rice flour and water. They are often shaped in oval disks or, in the case of Korean rice cakes known as tteokbokki, small logs. Drop them into boiling water for just a few minutes and they become soft and chewy; from there, you can stir-fry them, add them to soups, or bake them into casseroles.

Related: Why You Need to Know About Yun Hai, the Importer of the Best Taiwanese Ingredients

Fresh wheat noodles

These fresh Asian noodles typically offer more springiness and chewiness than their dried counterparts — and they take less time to cook. Keep a few packages in your freezer at all times so you can whip up a simple and savory meal of your favorite noodle dish with a bit more Q than you’d get from dried noodles.

Frozen fish balls

Super-bouncy fish balls are a beloved treat for the Q-loving masses. The easiest way to enjoy them is to keep a stash of premade frozen fish balls in the freezer. You can boil them in water, then add to broth for a simple soup, or just enjoy them on their own. Look for frozen cuttlefish balls, which have a particularly satisfying, tightly packed texture, from Asian grocery stores or online at umamicart.com.

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