We’re coming out of the phenomenon of Crazy Rich Asians. Global Asian culture is having a moment and Taiwanese food has been an outsized explosion lately—especially for an island nation 1/11th the area of the state of California. The Michelin guide landed in Taiwan just this past March. We’ve just released the first video from our #JournyxTaiwan trip, and it’s gotten hundreds of shares already. The New Yorker agrees.
I’ve been doing my #HsuSoup Taiwanese beef noodle soup pop-ups since 2015. Since then, I’ve been examining and trying to figure out why the food I come from is so special and delicious.
One answer: A obsession for texture.
Take for instance, the moment our team landed in Taiwan on October 4. We went straight off the runway into dinner with local expert friends from the restaurant and hotel worlds. As soon as we sat down, one of our team piped up: somebody had emailed us and tagged us on FB pointing us to the NYTimes article about ‘Q.’ The writer Amy Qin (probably Taiwanese(!), thank goodness, she gets it), likened it to the Italian al dente, but not quite.
Taiwanese food has long been obsessed with umami (xian, more subtle than straightforward salt) and fragrance (called xiang). But above all else, we Taiwanese chase texture. We’re more open than most Westerners to jiggly, weird, soft, mushy foods. For me, if the food is suited to the toothless, great! But the top dog of textures is ‘Q’ — this chewy, bouncy, elastic, addictive yet elusive feeling to describe. Al dente is about firmness and resistance, ‘Q’ is about something that punches back at you.
Al dente, at least by some Italian standards, still has that crispiness, on the verge of undercooked. It almost points to a firm exterior that’s aggressive, nearly masculine, in its declaration: “I have mastered my craft, do not question my perfect pasta.”
QQ is friendly and welcoming, like the Taiwanese people. And oh-so-pleasurable.
As a little girl, I heard my mom talk about ‘Q’ or ‘QQ.’ Q foods tasted good, that was a fact of life. While I attended Chinese school (aka torture) as a kid and studied Chinese language in college as a minor (prolonged torture), I never knew how to spell or write Q really at all in Chinese nor English. Yet I never questioned this Q, the existence of Q and the truth that is Q.
Why is Q so satisfying and, well, toothsome? Is it because it reminds us of the most primal times, when all we had to do to be successful at life was curl up in fetal position and nip at our mother’s teat? When contentedness was contained in a pacifier? Was that the original Q that made us so happy?
Ruth Reichl called soba “springy” in her seminal review of NYC's soba shop, Honmura. It was the 90’s, and she shocked traditionalists by awarding three NYTimes stars to (gasp) an Asian restaurant. Her old-school predecessor Bryan Miller accused her of "destroying the system.”
In my quest to as a homo sapien to express to other human-eaters my love for the perfect noodle and as I grew up in my food career, I would hold on to the word “springy” when describing this texture.
But now, the NYTimes has validated me. I’m allowed to use the term Q in polite cocktail conversation. And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, well, you might be an uncultured boor who doesn’t pick up the newspaper.
My, how far we’ve come. The cool kids are eating noodles and dumplings, tendon and tripe, bubble tea and mochi. What do these foods have in common? This QQ texture.
Texture is often overlooked when it comes to cooking and tasting the perfect dish. Changing flavor is one thing, but altering texture is a whole other dimension. Below are some of my favorite bites that give me that QQ feeling.
Top QQ Bites:
Noodles: soba, ramen, hand-pulled noodles, noodles you don’t know the name for—the best noodles are Q. The unofficial national dish of Taiwan is beef noodle soup. The soup must be good, the meat must be good, but if the noodles are Q, that is next level.
Braised stew meat: Let’s revisit the meat in Taiwanese beef noodle soup: Locals will know to get their beef noodle soup with half meat, half tendon to get a dose of this jiggly, weird texture. P.S. All that collagen (it’s not fat!) is excellent for healthy skin and nails.
Dumplings of the thick-skinned variety should have that QQ outside.
Offal: Many funky cuts of meat like tripe have QQ texture not a ton of flavor besides a nuanced earthiness. But a properly seasoned and sauced tripe dish is something to behold.
Jellyfish: Marinated in a refreshing, acidic vinaigrette, this is a common appetizer to kick off Chinese and Taiwanese meals.
Sea cucumber: Kinda scary sounding, alluring when prepared properly in, say, a traditional Chinese brown sauce. Not a lot of flavor to the sea cucumber itself save for a clean, earthy, brininess, but a whole lot of Q!
Raw clam: One of my favorite pieces of sushi in an advanced-level, indulgent omakase lineup is the raw clam of all sorts—giant clam (aka mirugai or geoduck), orange clam, surf clam and more.
Raw abalone: Prized in Asia, used in luxury Chinese restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne, but oft-overlooked in the USA, both raw and cooked abalone is like clam, this combination of umami and QQ I can’t get enough of.
Gummi candies: Why are they so irresistible at any age? Because of the QQ of course. There’s something so calming about gummi bears. In Taiwan, the convenience stores are all stocked with an array if gummi candy flavors that’ll make your head spin. Make sure you pack some as a souvenir.