Taiwanese tapioca for sale at the Lehua Night Market in Taipei. It has the prized ‘‘Q’’ texture. (Billy H.C. Kwok for The New York Times)
NEW TAIPEI CITY, Taiwan
As dusk falls at Lehua Night Market, hungry customers start trickling in, eager for a taste of the delicacies that give this island its reputation as one of Asia’s finest culinary capitals.
Neatly arranged plump fish balls. Bowls brimming with tapioca balls bathed in lightly sweetened syrup. Sizzling oyster omelets, hot off the griddle. Deep-fried sweet potato puffs, still dripping with oil.
Take a bite of any of these dishes and you’ll discover a unique texture. But how exactly do you describe that perfectly calibrated “mouth feel” so sought after by local cooks and eaters alike?
Slippery? Chewy? Globby? Not exactly the most flattering adjectives.
Luckily, the Taiwanese have a word for this texture. Well, actually, a letter.
“It’s difficult to explain what Q means exactly,” said Liu Yen-ling, a manager at Chun Shui Tang, a popular teahouse chain. “Basically it means springy, soft, elastic.”
Q texture is to Taiwanese what umami is to Japanese and al dente is to Italians — that is, cherished and essential. Around Taiwan, the letter Q can often be glimpsed amid a jumble of Chinese characters on shop signs and food packages and in convenience stores and advertisements.
The texture is most often used to describe foods that contain some kind of starch like noodles, tapioca pearls and fish balls. If something is really chewy, it could be called QQ.
“You can tell if bubble milk tea is good based on how Q the tapioca pearls are,” Mr. Liu said. “If the texture is perfect, it can be very satisfying.”
Q is so well established in Taiwan that many in Hong Kong and over the strait in mainland China use the term as well.
Elsewhere in Asia, it is a familiar texture, though the term itself may not be used. Tteok-bokki, a Korean stir-fried rice cake, and mochi, a Japanese rice cake, for example, could also be considered Q. In Western cuisine, the texture is less commonly found, though one could describe foods like gummy bears and certain kinds of pasta as Q.
The origins of the term Q are unclear. Some say it comes from the Taiwanese Hokkien word k’iu. Say Q to an elderly Taiwanese, and chances are he or she will know the term. But no one can quite explain how and when the 17th letter of the English alphabet became shorthand for describing the texture of tapioca balls.
On a recent evening at Lehua Night Market, crowds ambled through the pedestrian street, which was lined on both sides with vendors.
A group of young revelers were attracted to a stand with a neon sign that read “QQ popsicles.” Asked why Q texture was so appealing to Taiwanese, Lu Wei-chen, the owner of the stand, smiled as she handed a bright red jelly bar to a delighted toddler.
“It’s simple,” she said. “When you eat it, you will be in a good mood.”